Columbia Digital
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Fathom Disseminates Knowledge from Columbia and Other Members of the Fathom Consortium to a Global Audience

Ann Kirschner

Fathom, the premier site for authenticated knowledge and education on the Internet, was founded in 1999 by Columbia in partnership with some of the world's leading educational and cultural institutions, and with Ann Kirschner, a former academic and a media pioneer. In today's evolving online learning marketplace, Fathom offers high-quality online learning that reflects the core values of the 13 member institutions in its network, including the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The New York Public Library, The University of Chicago and The British Library.

Fathom assists these institutions in digitizing existing educational content and in the creation of new online learning experiences for dissemination to a broader audience. In so doing, Fathom is bringing quality content to an emerging medium.

"While the Internet itself is probably the greatest source for learning and research since the library, it does not readily sift between reality and fiction, between authenticated knowledge and factoids of uncertain origin," said Dr. Kirschner, president and CEO of Fathom. "The resulting jumble is part of the charm of the Net -- but also part of its danger."

Delivering high-quality educational content is Fathom's core objective. An Academic Council, established by Fathom's board and chaired by Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole, provides Fathom with advice and strategic direction, ensuring that the site offers programming of the highest academic quality and fosters diversity of opinion inspired by original scholarship and knowledge. Only content developed by one of Fathom's member institutions appears on Fathom. In addition, all course providers who distribute courses through the Fathom site must be screened and approved by the Media Evaluation Group at Columbia's Teachers College in accordance with policies approved by the Academic Council.

Born from Columbia's mission to provide educational opportunities to a broader audience, Fathom uses the Internet's reach to invite a global audience to tap into the intellectual activity that occurs within the walls of the world's great universities, museums, libraries and scholarly publishers.

"The faculty, curators, librarians, editors and researchers of Fathom member institutions work with Fathom in a new way to disseminate their research and teaching," said David Wolff, vice president for programming and production. "As opposed to a lecture, book or television appearance, Fathom provides the creators of today's knowledge with an online, multimedia format that is global, timely, interactive, collaborative and archived."

Faculty or other experts' participation is voluntary and content is always subject to the individual creator's approval.

Fathom organizes content in a variety of formats:

  • Free features, which include video, text or interviews with faculty and scholars
  • Free e-seminars, which are structured short-form multimedia learning experiences developed in collaboration with faculty and other affiliates
  • Fee-based online learning opportunities, which range from short e-courses to semester-length, for-credit courses
  • Reference works from encyclopedias and specialized sources
  • Books, specialized subscriptions and databases.

Fathom's audience includes lifelong learners, professionals and students seeking for-credit courses and other learning experiences to complement their studies.

Fathom is a leader in the emerging world of online education. "We have already seen a dramatic change in business on the Internet," said Anne Rollow, vice president for marketing and strategic alliances. "Many of the Internet start-ups that have failed were trying to convince consumers to buy traditional offline products, the value of which is not substantially changed or enhanced by online access. Fathom harnesses those features of the Web that are most relevant to education: interaction, collaboration, multimedia and the interconnection of ideas. Because the emerging consumer category of e-learning is flexible and customizable, it can extend learning to a different type of student."

Fathom is also increasing its outreach to online audiences through strategic partnerships with businesses.

Earlier this year Fathom announced its relationship with AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons), one of the nation's largest membership organizations, which is open to people over 50. Working with Fathom, AARP created an online learning area on its website where AARP's lifelong learners could access courses and content in technology and science, arts and humanities, history and perspectives, and personal management from Fathom and other online content providers.

Fathom also partnered with the BBC and Columbia DKV to create a short e-course on the history of slavery in Britain, following Columbia University Professor Simon Schama's popular BBC book and television series, "A History of Britain," which aired in the United Kingdom in summer 2001.

"Fathom is helping to affirm that Columbia is the preeminent institution in e-learning," said Kirschner. "We are a part of Columbia's broader perspective of e-learning. As demonstrated by Columbia, e-learning supports faculty in developing digital programs that further their scholarship; it supports students in using digital media in furthering their education; it reaches alumni to help them continue to further their education through Columbia digital media, and it extends the University to the outside world through digital media."

The 13 institutions in the Fathom consortium are Columbia University, London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, The New York Public Library, The University of Chicago, The University of Michigan, American Film Institute (AFI), RAND, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum (UK) and The Natural History Museum (UK).

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