News that Columbia University’s online learning venture, Fathom, will close this spring has led to resurfaced doubts about the future of online learning.

The site, which offers digital content from Columbia and 13 other academic and cultural institutions, will close March 31. Columbia’s partners in the venture included Cambridge University Press, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University of Chicago and the New York Public Library.

The news comes approximately four months after Herbert M. Allison Jr., the chief executive officer of Yale’s online alliance, AllLearn, announced that he would step down from his post. Allison has not yet been replaced, said Gila Reinstein, associate director of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs.

When AllLearn was founded in 2000, it was a cooperative effort between Yale, Oxford, Princeton and Stanford universities. Just one year later, in November 2001, Princeton pulled out of the alliance, citing its commitment to developing its own online teaching resources.

But Princeton and Columbia were not the first universities to abandon their online learning ventures. In the past two years, a number of institutions, including New York University and Temple University, also folded their programs. With these announcements comes skepticism about higher education’s ability to incorporate online learning.

Fathom’s Woes

The Columbia University Senate first targeted Fathom in May of 2002, suggesting the institution cut back its investment in the venture. In 2001, Columbia provided Fathom with $14.9 million, but Fathom earned a meager $700,000 that year. Since its inception, Fathom has served over 65,000 people in 52 countries.

Fathom president and chief executive officer Ann Kirschner said economic troubles are a fact of life in 2003, but she said just because Fathom did not generate a profit in its first two years does not mean it would not have done so in the future.

Frank Mayadas, a distance learning expert with the Sloan Foundation, said he thinks one of Fathom’s problems was that people trust many Internet sources, not just those that are validated by an online learning site.

“I think what we’ve learned is that making money that way, it just doesn’t work,” Mayadas said. “There’s too much stuff on the Internet to charge for that.”

Kirschner said she thinks people are interested in receiving some sort of certification, and that selling degrees and other certificates is clearly “the way to go.” But she said universities are not used to marketing themselves.

Yale President Richard Levin and Allison have both said AllLearn will not use mass-marketing techniques to attract new students.

And, despite Fathom’s troubles, Yale administrators said the University remains committed to its online learning alliance.

“The Corporation has been very supportive of Yale’s involvement,” said Yale Corporation member Janet Yellen ’71. “Ventures like this tend to lose money early on.”

AllLearn differs from Fathom in that it is a not-for-profit venture, and is targeted primarily for Yale, Stanford and Oxford alumni. In September, Allison said the initial investment of $12 million had not yet been spent.

AllLearn currently offers approximately 50 courses, which cost $300 each and are designed by professors from the participating institutions.

“Alumni have liked the courses, and continue to be responsive to taking them,” said Association of Yale Alumni Director Jeff Brenzel.

Alliances: The Root of the Problem?

Mayadas said he thinks one of the problems with ventures like Fathom is that universities initially have no vested interest in forming alliances since they are capable of functioning independently. He said when such alliances began, there was no empirical evidence that they would succeed.

“Before the alliance, there has to be some entities that form the alliance,” Mayadas said. “They have a structure — that’s geared toward making them live, and survive and thrive by themselves.”

Mayadas said ventures are ultimately unsuccessful when they attempt to form alliances artificially. He said when there is a “natural inclination” to cooperate — for instance, if one university offers courses that another does not — the results are better.

Mayadas said he thinks right now, the best alliances are those that are more informal. But he said he thinks there will be a market for online learning in the future.

“I do believe there will be,” Mayadas said. “I think there will be courses that can be shared.”

Kirschner said collaboration between universities is always a difficult project, but that Fathom had a unique opportunity to explore how such collaborations, particularly international ones, might work.

The Wave of the Future?

Kirschner said the two million students participating in online learning are evidence that the idea has taken hold.

“To say that online learning is not an important part of higher education is to say that books are not important too,” Kirschner said.

Computer science professor Joan Feigenbaum compared the development of online learning to that of Internet retail. She said while there will be more opportunities for “multi-channel education” in the future, online learning will not replace “brick and mortar” universities.

She also said that certain subjects, such as computer science and math, are conducive to a mainly online atmosphere in which the professor would simply be available to answer questions, decreasing lecture time.

Mayadas said he thinks online learning ventures, particularly ones within institutions, such as that of the State University of New York system, are quite successful.

“Online learning is doing fine,” Mayadas said. “It’s just the alliance aspect that is shaky.”

But a May article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that while many professors do use technology for teaching, they are not willing to completely give up face-to-face contact.

Feigenbaum said she did not think creating an online course is something she would want to initiate soon.

“I’m already spending enough time teaching as I want to spend on it,” Feigenbaum said.