A new University program offers a chance to explore William Shakespeare”s histories, ethics in genetics and the Roman Empire without having to leave home.

The first in a series of online mini-courses premiered yesterday on Fathom.com, a website that provides authenticated information from member institutions such as universities and libraries.

“We are really focused on our credit-bearing classes, but in a connected world like this it seems a shame to keep things cloistered within our walls,” said Louis King, Fathom liaison to the University.

Though the online classes are not for credit, King said they may be used as supplemental materials by teachers in credit-bearing courses.

“The faculty can tie that in with the rest of the course,” he said.

Taught by English Prof. Ralph Williams, the first course is called “The Shakespeare You Never Knew: The First History Plays” and will examine the three “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III.” It features audio and video footage of Williams and gives students the opportunity to ask him questions relating to the material covered.

Williams said Fathom.com and the University chose this class because the Royal Shakespeare Company performed those four histories in Ann Arbor last winter.

Williams worked with RSC and the University Musical Society to bring the company to Michigan, and said he was inspired by those performances.

“To have them here opens up a vision of excellence,” he said. “These are truly magnificent plays, and the directing that Michael Boyd”s company did was a revelation.”

RSC will return to Ann Arbor during the winter 2003 semester, Williams said, and again in 2005. Boyd and several RSC actors are featured in video commentary in the course.

King said the self-paced non-credit class takes about three to five weeks to complete. It costs $45 to participate.

Fathom will introduce more classes later this year, including “Daily Life in the Eastern Roman Empire (100 BCE 100 CE): Trade, Travel, and Transformation,” and “Genetics, Disease, and the Ethics of Gene Testing.”

The e-courses join a number of University “features” smaller narratives offered free of charge which have been on Fathom for more than six months, said King.

Online classes are intended primarily for University alumni and other non-students. King said he thinks some students will take advantage of the program, but “it”s kind of competing with other educational opportunities for them.”

He credited former University President Lee Bollinger for taking the initiative on the Fathom partnership.

Columbia University, where Bollinger will become president in July, is the biggest contributor to Fathom, according to King.

King said Columbia is producing 100 mini-courses this year. Other members include the British Library and the American Film Institute.

The Fathom e-courses are not the only form of online education at the University of Michigan, said King. Distance education is also offered by some schools at the University, and several degrees can be gained online.

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