Sun Microsystems chair touts open-source education for K-12 kids

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Since Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder Scott McNealy stepped down as chief executive to focus on his chairmanship full-time, he's been spearheading a side project to transform education the way digital music upended the recording industry.

Though it's not part of his official duties at Santa Clara-based Sun, Mr. McNealy is spending a lot of time as pitchman for a project called Curriki -- short for curriculum and wiki, which is a Web site allowing users to add and modify content and claim a piece of authorship.

In the case of Curriki, parents, teachers and students can post and download free lesson plans, sample tests, book chapters and other materials. McNealy said the site has strict copyright protections, requiring intellectual property releases for all the original material it publishes.

He said the idea is to lower the barrier to basic educational materials as more students get access to the Internet worldwide.

Mr. McNealy said he is particularly concerned about developing countries where network infrastructure is sparse, and he is encouraging local governments to boost network spending and adopt Curriki's open-source education model.

That's why he chose China to launch the second phase of the site this week. Mr. McNealy is keynoting a Sun education conference Wednesday in Beijing, where he will announce added features to the site, www.curriki.org, including the ability to create personalized pages and a function allowing users to upload and review documents in real time.

The site currently has some 3,000 posted items and some 35,000 members.

"The two hot-button issues every CEO would put at the top of their list are health care costs and better-educated employees -- everybody agrees that if we haven't gotten them by the eighth or ninth grade we might lose them," Mr. McNealy said. "Getting kids excited about learning is at the top of our lists, and this is just one little piece of the puzzle."

Mr. McNealy came up with the idea three years ago while helping one of his sons with a third-grade science project. McNealy struggled to find basic information online about how electricity works, and thought free academic resources would help children and teachers find information while saving schools money.

California spends more than $400 million annually on educational materials for kindergartners through 12th graders, he said. While he wants to cooperate with textbook publishers, Mr. McNealy still hopes the site will cut costs for teachers to flesh out lesson plans.

Some textbook publishers are wary, arguing the materials offered by a site like Curriki are not as comprehensive.

Charlene Gaynor, CEO of the Association of Educational Publishers, said large textbook companies are experimenting with ways to put their content online, but they are moving slowly because it takes years to produce a text.

"It's like turning the Titanic -- it's very understandable why the notion of stopping and adapting would be much more difficult," she said.

Ten years ago, the California State University system started a similar online community called Merlot for exchanging university-level materials. The site now has more than 16,000 posted items.

Charles Reed, the CSU chancellor, said a site like Curriki will help bridge the technology gap between teachers and students. However, the site faces a big challenge in cataloging the information to match the material to ever-evolving state standards.

"It's very urgent -- there is a whole new generation of students out there that are wired up differently than the people teaching them," Mr. Reed said. "This will give that new generation an opportunity to access information in a way they want, which will help them learn and be successful in public education."



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