back to article How to fix your kids' education for $200m

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 …


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  1. Samuel Lord

    Electronic teaching, texts, and and student-team acitivities...

    ...have been available for college students for quite a while through:, just purchased ( by Thompson Multimedia, which was just sold to ???? to buy Reuters. (

    For disclosure, a close relative runs aplia, but I have no stock, etc.

    For just $28 a semester, IIRC, that beats the cost of $200+ paper textbooks, no? So. California schools to follow, maybe...

  2. Nick Chapman

    rich guys

    "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.

    Um... Isn't he an intensely rich guy - who has made a lot of his money on the back of California business and California education? Maybe if he thinks this is such a good idea he could just stop speechifying - dribbling on about the shortcomings of his Ivy League education - and pony up the cash and, as the saying goes, just do it.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It costs too much

    Text book prices are outrageous. So are computer prices and so are printing costs (even the best monitors still have terrible readability compared to printed material - that is material printed with readability in mind, not just masses of text on a page). But that's not really the problem with using IT as your main tool to educate the masses.

    Access to information online at the moment often falls into 4 categories.

    1/Search engine results - which are generally completely useless tat if you need to do more than cut and paste an assignment or need to learn for an exam.

    2/Wikipedia style resources - that may have huge inaccuracies, but at least it's organised inaccuracy, and rather than having to search through pages of search result garbage you can actually find things easily enough.

    3/Well presented educational material on almost every subject - but unfortunately unless you are extremely lucky, usually costs more in subscription fees than the text books you started with.

    4/ Bullshit titled websites. You know, with their grand titles that entice you in with promises of relevant content. Unfortunately while the content may be good, it inevitably comes in the form of an overpriced text book you have order from said website.

    Now if this project succeeds then give the man a medal - because it's long overdue. But the idea of paying for the kind of equipment you would need to adequately give access to every student is somewhat daunting.

    At the very least a keyboard and screen would need to be on every desk. Crowding 3 or more kids round one computer is no way to learn. They'll spend too much time fighting over the mouse and keyboard to actually get anything worthwhile done. Those that don't won't learn a thing, because they'll be shoved to the rear.

    Then you have to ask who's going to maintain it all - and I can tell you 99.99% of schools do not employ IT staff.

    Then you have to look at replacement costs. Again 99.99% of schools don't carry insurance - it would be extortionately too high, instead local authorities carry large "just in case" bank accounts.

    In a utopian society every kid regardless of background and the criminal nature of the school neighbourhood would have equal access to these sorts of resources.

    In our society every school would on the local thieves hit list the day after the kit is installed.

  4. hall

    Hamilton Trust

    Started as open and is now a subscription model. Lesson/term plans and resources based on the UK Curriculum.

    This is more teacher centered than for students.

    This is one way of doing it - It seems to be used right through the UK - these are great resources that are peer reviewed and relate directly to their national curriculum. The resources I have used from this site as an Australian teacher have saved me hours of work. Most of the resources are not for technology enabled classes.

    I would prefer that the content was more open, but the fee/membership is minimal for high quality material.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The problem with textbooks is quality

    If you've ever used a K-12 text you'll see they are deficient in quality, currency, accuracy, relevance, cost and supporting classroom materials. Of course these reasons are inter-related: a costly book has to last a long time in a fixed purchasing budget and thus looses currency. Although some reasons for poor texts are just bizaare: such as the influence of Texas conservatives on biology texts used in Australia.

    There is a lot to be said for using computers and the Internet to make better text books and classroom materials. That's happening to an extent right now. In most subjects you'll find an enthusiastic and good teacher sharing their materials.

    The uninspired and bad teachers simply use stock materials from books made for the purpose and they are simply dreadful. I was given a "worksheet" the other day in a class of 6 year olds. It used words directly from the curriculum, a document aimed at >21yo. Astonishingly, this happens so often the kids knew what the jargon words meant. If the Internet enabes good materials (which are usually free anyway) to drive out the bad materials then that would lift the performance of poor teachers.

    The other thing the Internet allows is for a textbook to road tested in real classrooms for an extended period. The text I'm writing for senior school computing has been trialled by teachers I don't even know, and the anonymising effect of a discussion board leads to much better feedback for the details of the text (but doesn't help guage bigger questions, like "do the learners like it").

    I doubt this initiative will succeed. But my experience is that the Internet is changing the way teachers prepare for their time in the class in a positive way.

    Finally, I'm always suspicious of people wanting to build new curriculums. UNICEF has a perfectly good set for K-6. Higher school topics are more challenging, with many of the curriculums describing them being woeful. But that's usually because the texts and materials are in turn woeful. I've come to the conclusion that if you want to change how a subject is taught you need to start from the classroom and work upwards. Otherwise you get misdirected by learning theory. One computing curriculum in my country spends 20% of the course on safety issues, because the computing curriculum arose from a curriculum process designed to teach electricians.

  6. Bob Calder


    McNealy was saying that the ontology is fixed so you can create an XML skeleton to stuff highly structured data in. This should allow federation pretty easily. It's pretty simple and will work because it is a guide, not an authority. The teacher is the authority who will use the resource to build a way for each child to benefit in an individulaized fashion.

    It is not like Wikipedia. Wikipedia has to contend with controversey and oversampling isn't an option. If you continue to pretend that an encyclopedia is like a dictionary it won't be very helpful. Wales is correct in that quite soon, the growth of information will make it impossible to afford collection and distribution models based on traditional businesses such as encyclopedia publishers.

  7. Ian Ferguson

    No mention of the BBC?

    The irony is that BBC's Jam was something like this; free, professionally produced educational resources. And it worked well. Very well. Too well in fact, as 'unidentified private education providers' (read: textbook publishers) ran with their tails between their legs to the EU courts and managed to get the site taken down. A great nonsensical tragedy - and considering the state of American courts, it wouldn't surprise me if this project comes to the same sticky end.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hail to stupidity

    'I was at a college graduation ceremony yesterday, and when one of the student speakers mentioned Wikipedia the graduates broke into applause'

    Wiki should be banned from all schools and colleges due to its wild claims, misleading articles and in a lot of cases just plain wrong. Yes there is some useful information there, but nobody can guarantee it is correct and anybody can write something that sounds plausible but is completely wrong. The graduates at the aforementiond college are supposed to have a degree of intelligence and yet they use Wiki for research? Slightly worrying that future industry and political leaders don't see the need for verified facts.

  9. Chris

    BBC Free?

    BBC Jam was free to the cost of £150 million pounds of licence payers' money.

  10. Kevin Hall

    Total bollocks...

    The idea that there is an IT solution to teaching problems is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what Mcnealy is angling for, either handing over more money to profiteers like himself so he can keep pushing over-priced Sun kit to run all this rubbish on. Okay the textbooks are rubbish but this is hardly a position that can't be fixed. If the books are crap then have them rewritten, better edited and introduce so academic quality control. California is the seventh wealthiest economy on Earth, more than most nation states, so there's hardly a problem with not having the money.

    But the whole plan is just rubbish. Having all text books in a digital format would have enormous capital costs. Consider at the moment all the UK secondary schools are spending nearly £100,000 a year on IT, increasing at nearly 20% a year ( There are more than 3,500 secondary schools in the UK ( So we're spending more than £318 million a year to provide about 200 computers per school. Those costs don't even include primary or special schools. Therefore each computer roughly costs £443. So considering there are nearly 4 million children in secondary education (, this would require a computer/pupil ratio of 1:1 if we're replacing textbooks so at £443 per computer would cost £1,772,000,000 which buys an awful lot of textbooks.

    As for BBC Jam being free, of course is wasn't free but the BBCs charter say that it must be a public service broadcaster to educate and inform. It seems to me that BBC Jam was a lot closer to its original remit that 99% of the other shite the corporation spews out. Is anyone going to seriously argue that using £150 million to help educate children isn't a good use of taxpayers money or would you rather (a) see that handed over to profiteers who'll hand in a product three times worse, twice as expensive and have no democratic accountability or (b) use the money to puke out more shite like EastEnders or Any Dream Will Do?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Learn in later life

    Of course you can also use freely available (and academically approved) materials later in life from the Open University.

  12. Lathem Gibson

    Assuming "rich guys" wanted to fund education.....

    ...wouldn't they have done so all ready? Barring notables like Carnegie and Smithson, the vast majority of the rich understand that education and knowledge is critical to remaining rich. In a capitalist, zero-sum system, a dollar in my pocket is a dollar out of yours, so why would they want to encourage possible competition?

    Much better to keep the kids dumb, because then they'll be much more loyal workers.

  13. David Pottage

    BBC Jam

    > BBC Jam was free to the cost of £150 million pounds of licence payers' money.

    That works out at about £3 per UK resident. Sound very cheap to me compared with other education costs.

  14. |333173|3|_||3

    BBC Jam

    If BBC Jam were a new independent trust, with a charter to act as a portal for all childrens learning for all governemnt trusts, with the individual subject area staff rolled into the seperate museums. Thus the Science and Natural History Museums could cover most of science, each of the major history museums, adn the IWM, could cover history, the arts would be covered by the V&A, major galleries, the National Teatre, and so forth. Teh same staff could cary on doing the same jobs, they would simply be in new offices. Provided thier superiors knew what the score was, everything should work well.

    Of course, a better solution would be to simply ignore the ruling,a dn refuse to pay any fines imposed. THe sheer panic caused by the threat of Britain ignoring unwanted instructions and he fact that the UK sends more money to Brussels than it recieves back, would be at least a worry. to Brussels

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cheating made easy!

    If the textbooks are online, so will the teacher's guides with answers to all the problems. A whole new industry for the warez sites!

  16. Joel

    BBC Jam

    Forcing the BBC to take down their site because it was too good is an absolute travesty. Using public money to fund educational resources should be beyond reproach. This was a great resource for kids, and it was free at the point of delivery.

    In the field of education, we should be looking for excellence. Would we expect Universities to take down their web sites because they are state funded and private companies can't compete?

    Would we expect Government to cut back spending on state education because private schools are finding it difficult to match the expenditure?

    No. The BBC should be allowed to provide the best resources it can in the fields of education and public benefit. Businesses would have to offer better resources to be able to compete, or offer more specialised niche products.

    Keep the bar raised high. Don't pander for the lowest common denominator.

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