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MS aims for e-education leverage via $25m MIT deal

The five year project follows a $20m Gates donation in April, coincidentally, no doubt

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Microsoft has struck an interesting and unusual funding deal with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Under the terms of the agreement Microsoft will fund joint research into new teaching technologies to the tune of $25 million, over five years. So far so clear enough, but the project, dubbed "I-Campus," is a little out of the ordinary from the points of view of both partners. Microsoft has an uncanny knack of ending up with rights to most technologies it 'co-develops,' but in this case it doesn't, entirely. And MIT, being one of those business-savvy US universities, ordinarily keeps close rein on anything it develops; but in this case, Microsoft will have first option on some of the technology. For the sake of perspective here we should point out that British universities are frequently perfectly happy to work for free equipment, and then to let the nice sponsor wander off clutching the results of the research. But you know how feckless we Brits are. Anyway, although on the one hand it's claimed most of the fruits of the research will go into the public domain, on the other the deal (which seems to have involved some considerable discussion between lawyers) gives Microsoft a royalty-free licence to technology developed at MIT but funded by MS, and first refusal on the patents to technology jointly developed by the two. Which would appear to limit the amount of technology that would obviously be eligible to go into the public domain. I-Campus is intended to be a combination of new teaching techniques using technology and distance learning, and the National University of Singapore is being cut in on the project to help design a "global education system." Historical scholars will note that MS is in deep, and wants to get in deeper, with Singapore's plans for becoming the world's most wired country. Bill himself scored a major deal covering the whole shebang - set-top boxes, e-commerce, home banking - in Singapore back in 1998. And, significantly, one part of the deal involved co-operating with the Singapore government to build the "Singapore IT Master Plan for Education." Which might give you an idea of what Singapore Uni will be contributing. The reason who owns the I-Campus technology and who gets first access to it is important is neatly identified by Microsoft's own release: "The technology and methods the two organisations develop are expected to set the pace for university education over the next five to ten years." And they'll obviously provide the basis for products that Microsoft will intend to sell into the education market during that period. The timescale of the deal is interesting too. Apparently Microsoft and MIT have been negotiating since January, and along the way to the announcement today, charitable Bill in April gave MIT $20 million towards the construction of a new Gates Building for the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Gates also donated the blueprints for Altair Basic, which were to be put into a paper bag made out of lead. ®

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