SAN FRANCISCO (03/17/2000) - Imagine going home after a tough day, pouring yourself a drink, putting up your feet and listening to Michelangelo tell you what a hassle it was to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Envision gathering your children to ask Abraham Lincoln why the United States erupted in a civil war.
Things like that aren't possible, of course. But they will be, according to high-technology billionaire Michael Saylor. The chief executive officer of MicroStrategy Inc., a US$20 billion technology firm based in northern Virginia, Saylor has pledged $100 million to start a "cyber university" that would use the Internet and streaming video to make education ubiquitous -- and absolutely free -- to anyone who wants to learn.
"We are ignorant, but we don't deserve to be ignorant," Saylor says. "We have a God-given right to all the education we can handle."
The concept of distance learning, in which students are physically removed from the academy, has been around at least since 1892, when Pennsylvania State University started offering correspondence courses. In the 1970s, two guys from Long Island, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, paid $5 for a distance-learning course in ice cream manufacture, and they parlayed their knowledge into the Ben and Jerry's ice cream empire. But so far, distance learning has remained largely adjunct to traditional education.
If executed properly, Saylor's idea could be revolutionary. He professes not to want to compete with traditional colleges and universities. Indeed, he intends to let them use his virtual system any way they want. But there's no escaping the fact that the broad-based, no-cost system Saylor envisions would yank the financial rug out from under postsecondary education.
Saylor intends to establish Washington-area "cyber studios" in which statesmen, teachers and Nobel Prize winners would record virtual lectures on any topic, from architecture to zoology. Anyone with the right Internet access could get their hands on the knowledge whenever they wanted. Saylor envisions offering accredited courses, after which students would be able to show up at a testing center armed with nothing more than their new-found knowledge and a photo ID in order to be tested for a degree.
The budding philanthropist graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987 on an ROTC scholarship. Saylor started MicroStrategy as a data-mining company in 1989. MicroStrategy's flagship, Strategy.com, aims to keep people informed via e-mail, pager and telephone about everything that matters to them, from traffic tie-ups to airline cancellations to stock market dips.
Saylor admits that his idea needs work. He calls his planned $100 million investment a "down payment" that he hopes will be matched by philanthropies, corporations and educators working to ensure that virtual education -- and the technology needed to use it -- is available to anyone around the world. Saylor calls broadband Internet access "an entitlement of civilization."
The idea has met with some skepticism. Vicky Phillips, CEO of Geteducated.com, a distance-learning consultant firm, applauds the notion of free education.
Phillips cautions, however, that Saylor might be focusing too much on the "bells and whistles" of cutting-edge technology and marquee lecturers at the expense of developing practical, low-tech means of spreading knowledge around the globe -- such as printing more books.
A MicroStrategy spokesman says the company has received letters of support from several congressmen. John G. Flores, executive director of the United States Distance Learning Association, says his group was "quite pleased and quite delighted" with the idea.
"If we educate 5 million people, we'll create 500 million better lives," Saylor says. "One day, education will be like water. ...People will look back and think, 'Was there ever a world where people had to pay for this stuff?'"