A consortium of prestigious universities, libraries, museums and publishers this week launched a multimillion-dollar dot-com offering online lectures, seminars and performances.
"Fathom" is headed by Columbia University in the United States - which has committed tens of millions of dollars to the enterprise - and the London School of Economics. It also includes Cambridge University Press, the British Library, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library.
Ann Kirschner, president and chief executive of Fathom, said: "Fathom will present authenticated knowledge from leading institutions, much of it previously inaccessible."
The company will provide free access to some material and charge for other programmes. In general, what is free in the real world will be free to webusers.
For example, a digitial version of the British Library's Magna Carta will be available for free. However, each partnership institution will be able to charge for its online courses, setting its own admissions policy, tuition fees and accreditation.
The company aims to provide for individuals rather than for corporate use. Dr Kirschner said: "If you are a student at a regional college and you are interested in, say, molecular biology and there isn't an expert at your college, then you could have access to a course taught by a renowned expert in the field."
The company will also aim to attract working adults who want to update their skills and recreational learners.
Fathom plans to form more partnerships with academic and cultural institutions. Neil Gregory, director of the research and contracts division at the LSE, said:
"Universities create knowledge, libraries and museums store knowledge and publishers disseminate knowledge ...any institution that fits with that is on our radar screen." Other financial partners are also expected to join.
One of Fathom's directors is Stephen Friedman, a former senior chairman of Goldman Sachs. Mr Gregory said: "We will be using all the contacts and advice available to us."
Ultimately, the company aims to float on the stock market.
"Our goal is to create a high- profit, sustainable business that can return value to its shareholders, the six partner institutions," said Dr Kirschner.
Stephen Hill, pro-director of the LSE, said: "The e-economy is transforming the landscape of higher education and research as surely as it is transforming the rest of society. The next few years will be a period of unprecedented change for universities as we face these opportunities and challenges. Fathom is a key part of the LSE's response to both." Details: www.fathom.com