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How to fix your kids' education for $200m

Open source brains

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Analysis Let's start with this sweeping statement: You can consider the money and time spent hyping internet-enabled education a failure.

We all know that you can find ample information on just about anything via the Web. This information glut, however, does little to solve very basic problems such as the digital divide, where students miss out on the latest in technology, or the cost of obtaining a first-rate education, as evidenced by the exorbitant fees charged by textbook makers. Despite many efforts, we've yet to provide any muscular, consistent structure around aiding the education of youngsters through technology.

One depressing example of this trend comes via comments made by technology contrarian Nick Carr. "I was at a college graduation ceremony yesterday, and when one of the student speakers mentioned Wikipedia the graduates broke into applause," Carr writes. 'Now we can finally admit that we use Wikipedia for research,' the speaker continued. That brought another round of cheers from the kids as well as some futile boos and hisses from parents and faculty."

How sad that the techno-utopians have touched our children in this way. The internet's richness sits at the youngsters' fingertips, but they prefer to be dulled into submission by the sophistry of Wikipedia.

During a recent visit to Beijing, we were reminded of a new type of digital divide between the US and rival nations. No Wikipedia page had the strength to power through China's Great Firewall. My how the thousands of PRC engineers being programmed to crush us must miss out on experiencing "truthiness" or Daniel Sadville's dance with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Currikipedia

The same trip to Beijing provided us time to sit down with Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy to discuss, of all things, his views on education. McNealy was in town to announce the second version of something called Curriki, during an education conference. One day later Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates unveiled $3 versions of Windows in the same city. It's funny what these Chairmen get up to.

For the unfamiliar, Curriki is McNealy's pet project around what you might call open source education.

McNealy finds it outrageous that California spends close to $400m per year on text books, particularly when you consider that few of the texts change in any meaningful way from year-to-year. So why not create a system where teachers can select the best text books, create online versions of the books and update the information as needed?

More broadly, the Curriki project, as the name suggests, could serve as a platform for teachers to construct curricula, including the texts, lesson plans and teaching aids. The users of the system could discover, via something resembling the empirical method, which third grade math curriculum appeals most to students or which Modern European history curriculum leads to the highest scores on standardized tests.

At the same time, Curriki could give ambitious students a chance to dig into advanced courses at their own speed and could give teachers some much needed training.

Sound fanciful enough? Right, so let's dig in to see how this might actually work.

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