Billionaire plans Web site of free lectures

Goal is to teach everyone in world, grant diplomas

March 16, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A 35-year-old software billionaire said yesterday that he would spend $100 million to realize his vision of 21st century higher education: a giant free Web site that would provide access to what he calls the "10,000 greatest minds of our time," in lectures and interviews recorded for the venture.

Michael Saylor, the chief executive of Microstrategy, a technology company in Northern Virginia, said that his goal was "free education for everyone on Earth, forever." And he envisions his institution eventually granting degrees in countless disciplines, based on final exams that would be administered once a month in convention halls around the world, with grading done by computer whenever possible.

Saylor is an unabashed self-promoter. However, he is worth enough money on paper -- $11.7 billion at the close of stock trading yesterday -- to make it difficult to immediately dismiss his idea, however grandiose.

Saylor's donation, which is to be in the form of cash and stock to his foundation, comes at a time when almost every U.S. university is developing online offerings of its courses -- each chipping away at the notion that a university must have bricks and mortar and a physically present student body to be effective.

But with his students requiring nothing more than a computer to enroll, his effort would take online education a step further, undermining a university's very franchise in charging admission for access to knowledge and expertise.

Saylor's plans would rank near the top of other online efforts. A group of investors, including Michael Milken, the dethroned junk-bond financier, says it will spend as much as $100 million to start an online, for-profit university called Unext, which would feature course content from professors at the University of Chicago.

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