How to fix your kids' education for $200m
Open source brains
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.
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.
"The beauty of K-12 (kindergarten through twelfth grade) is that we know what we know," McNealy says. "We know ten plus ten. We know sentence diagramming. We know modern European history. We know geography. We know all that stuff.
"Anything that is known can be reduced to an on-demand type thing."
With such a premise in mind, paying $130 for a fourth grade math text does, in fact, seem ridiculous.
So, the Curriki backers have created a system  where educators can upload their own material. Perform a search for "calculus," and you get seven items back, including "Introductory Calculus 1" from the National Repository of Online Courses and a PowerPoint presentation from a chap named Mike Corsetti covering imaginary numbers.
At present, the searches prove quite thin. Much of the material, in fact, comes from the National Repository of Online Courses, making one wonder if another repository is needed.
The answer is 'absolutely,' according to McNealy, who has set ambitious goals for the Curriki project.
"Right now, we are just in collecting mode and have 3,000 plus assets," he said. "The goal over - let me be clear on the timing - the next twenty years is to get all of this information in a common user interface, a common search format, a common development architecture and a common deployment architecture, so that it all feels like it came from the same place."
Ever the Sun loyalist, McNealy describes the Curriki effort in terms familiar to server customers. He talks about an education-based services oriented architecture (SOA) and discusses a worldwide effort around the education site being governed by something similar to the Java Community Process. And the first step, as mentioned, is to build a Curriki reference architecture - similar to the RAs Sun pitches at customers buying hardware.
To pull this off, the Curriki crowd seeks close to $200m in funding.
"If I could get some rich guys to give us enough money, we could actually go pay some people to get that reference architecture going," McNealy said. "Then, it could evolve from there."
The funding aspect seems key to us. The last thing we need is a bunch of anonymous posters sending in textbooks that served as the basis for a child's education. Curriki would need the best of the best to displace incumbent textbook makers rather than the facile cruft that dominates Wikipedia.
"I don't mind paying people to get even higher quality content," McNealy said. "Some people are smart and like to donate, and some people want to see the money. I don't want to lose either set."
Oversight, of course, would help too. God forbid the playground go unattended like it does at Jimmy Wales's house.
As McNealy sees it, you could end up with professors from universities in, say, the US, China and Scotland being paid to shepherd the calculus "cell" on Curriki. They would ensure that high quality texts and course material were in place and also monitor how well material was received and how well it helped students.
It's this measurement quality that stands as key to McNealy.
"We'll build in feedback mechanisms so that every group competes against all the other groups," he said. "You might find that third grade math seems to be getting better reviews than fifth grade social studies. So, we'll find out what's wrong with fifth grade social studies."
Such a feedback loop could deliver a drastic improvements over the current textbook system where publishers often update texts with a new format simply so they can sell fresh editions of the same, old material. Move a few pictures around, bold some text and voilà, a teacher's lesson plan from 2007 fails to work for 2008 texts, since the page numbering has been skewed.
Open Source Social Studies
"How do schools decide when to move to new books?" McNealy asks. "Who decides how smart the people making these decisions are? Did they actually go out and get statistical information on how the kids are doing or did they get their information from the McGraw Hill sales rep?"
If Curriki pans out, it could well establish a much lacking structure to online education. Students today, for example, can find plenty of pages on calculus or American history on the internet. The sites, however, vary in their quality and presentation.
"We are not trying to beat anybody," McNealy said. "We are just trying to push this effort forward. I want the idea of community engineered, community developed, free, open source education to win."
Ideally, this model would replace the "no child left behind" mentality where we cater to the lowest common denominator with what McNealy describes as a "no child, parent or teacher held back" philosophy.
"I took statistics in college and did it in 18 hours," McNealy said. "I would have raced through Harvard in a heartbeat if given the chance."
The self-described golf major was "disappointed" with his Ivy League education.
"This would help solve a lot of the problems," McNealy said. "I think a lot of the curriculum is dumb, useless, irrelevant and poorly presented."
And, for the text book makers worried about this Curriki concept, McNealy warns through analogy.
"Newspapers can fight eBay and Craigslist or figure out how to ride the tsunami."
For example, McNealy sees Curriki leading to, say, a version of third grade math for the Shanghai school district and another version for the New York school district. "Everybody in the world doesn't need to create different content delivery sites. They can use us for free. The only thing we ask is that you make your content free for everybody else."
The textbook makers could then grab the, er, "Fedora" version of New York's third grade math text and print it up and certify it. "We can lower the engineering costs upfront, and give them a reference implementation. There's a lot of value they can add on top of that."
Over the next year, Curriki hopes to pull in anywhere between $10m and $20m. The project's leaders have set up a donation system  to help meet that goal. Eventually, as mentioned, Curriki wants to raise close to $200m, so that the project has a proper endowment.
Many will find McNealy's touchy-feely, free market spin on education repugnant, while others will find it fanciful. The Sun co-founder wants to see cheaper, better course materials and a way to let bright children learn faster. Curriki seems to accomplish this by, in part, routing around the teacher, once the material has been supplied.
Curriki also makes a number of huge assumptions, including the belief that what has worked in the technology world can be applied to education and that much overlap at all will exist between different countries, which have very different approaches and expectations from education.
In short, how welcome or effective will a "raging capitalist" mentality be in this sphere?
The scope of Curriki appears daunting but not out of the realm of McNealy's experience.
McNealy does not dismiss such challenges and admits that he's gone after and failed at a number of similar projects.
"I have done bigger, crazier projects. Trust me." ®