SAN FRANCISCO-Sun Microsystems has seen the future of education, and it can be viewed right there on a desktop monitor.
Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman of the board, explained his take on this topic Feb. 28 at Sun's annual education summit here at the Westin St. Francis.
Some 1,000 school district, K-12, college and university IT administrators were on hand at the Worldwide Education and Research Conference to hear about the latest in technology for the classroom.
McNealy described an intriguing initiative with which Sun has become involved, called immersive education, which uses real-time three-dimensional audio and video and recently developed, powerful open-source software to enable teachers to interact with individuals or groups of students online-an environment in which today's young people are often more comfortable than in a classroom.
It's called "Education 3.0," or a take on education reminiscent of the simulation program "Second Life," in which students can move their avatars down a volcano, for example, or visit the burial rooms under an Egyptian pyramid. The students can ask questions via their avatars and have them answered by the teacher; students have a lot of fun in the process, McNealy said.
Several different kinds of media can be merged into the immersive system, such as analog film, videotape, online maps, audio tracks, wiki pages and still pictures from archives. The presentations might resemble mashups of a map (say, of Egypt) in the background, a video showing the chosen topic (perhaps workers building a pyramid), a diagram of a tomb, some bullet points on Egyptian history from Wikipedia and a narrator-live or recorded-tying it all together.
When a student who has logged in to this presentation has a question or wants to see what's inside a treasure box he or she has spotted in the burial room, for example, the student can have the avatar walk over to the box and touch it to open it.
"These kids are so good at using video games and texting each other, that this is all second nature to them," McNealy said. "It's a lot more interesting than sitting listening to a teacher talk for an hour in a classroom."
Project Wonderland, an open-source tool kit for creating collaborative 3-D virtual worlds, is a project of Sun Microsystems Laboratories. Within those worlds, users can communicate with high-fidelity, immersive audio and can share live applications such as Web browsers, OpenOffice documents, Webcams, media and games using the Project Darkstar game server platform in concert with Sun's homegrown grid computing service.
Sun is subscribing to its own technology in this brave new education world. "We're doing this now at Sun first, so we can test out all the attributes of this approach, which is really pretty disruptive," McNealy said.