Scott McNealy is not the bashful sort.
He’s a Silicon Valley original who cofounded Sun Microsystems and ran the place for two decades. He’s cocky and an adherent to the mantra “go big or go home.” He sees no reason to curse the darkness when you can light a candle or a stick of dynamite.
Now that Sun is no more (sold to Larry Ellison, another valley shrinking violet), McNealy has turned his attention to a bold plan to turn elementary and high school education inside out.
“If we had $100 million, I could create a website — and I’ve done bigger and crazier things than this — that is a combination Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter for anybody involved in K-12 — every parent, teacher or student in K-12 education.”
McNealy is sitting in a booth over breakfast and it feels like the place is vibrating. Yes, he’s very excited about Curriki, his vision for a free and open source digital compendium of just about everything teachers use to teach — textbooks, worksheets, tests, video presentations, podcasts, you name it. The project, run by McNealy and former Sun executive Kim Jones, started inside Sun six years ago and spun out as a nonprofit in 2006.
McNealy is the lead evangelist and funder for the initiative that’s also received donations from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, Bechtel CEO Riley Bechtel, former eBay CEO and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and others — about $10 million in all. Eliminating bulky textbooks, McNealy says, and the need to update and reprint them could save schools billions of dollars a year, particularly when you add in all the other printed educational material that could be digitized.
Estimates of what the nation spends on textbooks vary wildly, but for an idea of the scale of the project, consider that California spends about $350 million a year on textbooks and educational material.
Curriki has a start and a long way to go. Jones says college professors, teachers and authors have uploaded 38,000 educational pieces to the site, http://www.curriki.org. It has about 135,000 registered users. No question the site needs to become easier to navigate, Jones and McNealy acknowledge. And despite the volume of contributions, there are considerable gaps for those looking for a complete K-12 experience.
There are other obstacles for Curriki, too. McNealy is taking on an educational bureaucracy that is notoriously hidebound. Education reform does not move on Internet time. Textbooks must be approved by state boards and accepted by school districts and school administrators. Publishers have political clout and a huge financial stake in the way educational content is delivered. Critics have pointed out that even a free and open source system has costs — technical support, training, the need to make sure schools and kids have computers or other devices to access the wealth of Web-bound information.
But McNealy is unbowed.
“If I never have another job,” he says (and at the moment he doesn’t have another job), “this is a wall that I am going to keep bashing my head into.”
Why? Don’t get him started. It drives McNealy nuts, for instance, that third-grade math books are regularly reprinted and reordered by schools year after year.
“The ones you and I learned on would work just as well for my third-grader as the new ones,” he tells me. “You learned 10 plus 10 was 20. It hasn’t changed since then and it’s not going to change 20 years from now.”
Saving money is just the beginning, McNealy says. Open source digital textbooks would mean that teachers could add, subtract and change curriculum. Teachers could comment on each others’ lesson plans. Students would receive instant feedback — yes or no, right or wrong — when completing assignments delivered via computer program. And instant feedback lights kids up, says McNealy, the father of four scholars, ages 8 to 14.
McNealy is a true believer in an open source answer to what ails education and I admire his zeal. Our public schools are a wreck and sinking fast. I can’t say that Curriki is the answer. And even McNealy, a fierce competitor in golf, hockey and business, says this isn’t some contest that Curriki must win. But he figures Curriki might at least inspire other big ideas.
“I just want the problem solved.”
We all want that. And the truth is, the more big, bold ideas out there, the more dynamite fuses we light, the better our chances of finding something that might just save our schools and our future.