How to fix your kids' education for $200m

Open source brains

Screengrab of Curriki's Social Studies offering

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?"

Muscular hippies

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." ®

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