January 20, 2003

Fathoming the Future of eLearning

Print More

On January 6, 2003, Columbia University announced that it would be closing Fathom.com, its for-profit distance learning unit, as part of the reorganization of its digital media operations.

Effective March 31 this year, the largest online learning venture will end.

Fathom.com describes itself as an online consortium of the digital offerings of more than one dozen universities and institutions worldwide. Over the last two years, over 65,000 students have enrolled and taken over 2,000 courses through the website.

“Fathom identified the key challenges to online learning,” said Dr. Ann Kirschner, CEO of Fathom.

“It was a way to learn and build the best practices,” Kirschner added, “but it was very expensive.”

Fathom’s development, which began in 1999, reportedly cost over $25 million, and much of this money was contributed by Columbia.

“The average consumer still doesn’t understand what online learning really is,” said Kirschner.

John Neuman ’62, interim CEO of eCornell, Cornell’s wholly owned for-profit online learning subsidiary, reacted to the demise of Fathom by commenting that eCornell is doing very well.

“We should be making a profit by the end of this year,” Neuman said.

eCornell takes a very different approach at online learning. Whereas eCornell targets corporate customers for training and certification programs, Fathom seeks a market of individuals who are willing to pay for online courses on a variety of subjects.

“Fathom was a very expensive undertaking and they never were able to get a revenue stream,” Neuman said.

“We have a unique advantage of having very special colleges and faculty at Cornell,” Neuman said. “Our products are not only outstanding learning products. They are of outstanding quality from a varsity faculty and the Cornell name opens the door.”

“When competing for training dollars, the Cornell brand is very strong. We have top programs in human resources and hotel management,” he added.

Neuman declined to reveal actual financial numbers for eCornell, but did note that eCornell sales are up over 400 percent and are expected to rise by the same amount this year.

Similarly, Fathom had projected increases in sales.

“On the business side, Fathom has increasing sales and would eventually become profitable,” Kirschner said.

Despite the demise of the largest online learning venture, Kirschner insists that there is still a significant and growing demand for online learning.

“eLearning is going to be an enormous business,” she said. “Fathom is not going away but is, in a sense, merging with other units at Columbia and focusing only to on-campus learning.”

“Naysayers will take this as a sign of the end of online learning,” Kirschner said, “but this is not going away.”

Kirschner foresees faculty increasingly using technology in traditional classes, but comments that, “They need to break through beyond discussion boards and chat sessions.”

“The penetration of broadband into homes is going to change online learning as well, but right now people are most willing to pay for online certification programs,” Kirschner said.

“We need to disseminate the knowledge that we gained at Fathom. eLearning is not going away, this will serve as a milestone, not a failure,” Kirschner said.

Archived article by Chris Mitchell