Microsoft is to spend $25 million turning the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into a living laboratory for the development and testing of new teaching models and educational tools. The company plans similar investments at other world-class universities.
The MIT investment is intended to create better learning environments for students, better teaching and curriculum development environments for faculty, and a better infrastructure for university administrators.
There are three initial projects: an expansion of the MIT Shakespeare electronic archive, the design of an educational system using a "global classroom", recently established with the National University of Singapore, and an experiment in remote collaboration on aerospace design courses.
Proposals for further research will be reviewed by a steering committee of three MIT and three Microsoft representatives. The MIT members are computer scientist Hal Abelson, dean of engineering Thomas Magnanti and academic computing director Vijay Kumar.
Microsoft has made donations to universities and has worked informally with individual university professors on technology projects, but this is the first broad-based research partnership Microsoft has established with a university.
William Vablais, Microsoft's university research programme manager, said: "This goes far beyond what we have done before and is essentially a model for how we want to work with other universities in the future."
Microsoft's new interest in technology for higher education attracted comment from competitors. Ian Green, IBM's education manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said IBM had been working on its own learning environment for four years. "It is now established in many parts of the world," he said.
Mr Green said IBM developed its online learning environment, Lotus LearningSpace, through smaller collaborations with universities, colleges and training organisations worldwide.
Bryan Watson, general manager of Microsoft's education group, said MIT was the first in the I-Campus programme because of its status as "probably the premier United States research institution".
More top-flight research universities around the world will come on board next year.
"We'll go all over, wherever we need to. It will be a big investment," said Mr Watson, adding that I-Campus would build on the many alliances already forged by Microsoft's research group with a number of universities' research departments.
He did not name institutions, but the University of Cambridge, which has already enjoyed a Pounds 12 million donation from Microsoft, could be on the shortlist. The subject may have been discussed when Microsoft chairman Bill Gates met prime minister Tony Blair in London on Wednesday.