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.
Virtual Campus at Sun
Sun’s own “immersive” project is called MPK20. The company’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif., has 19 buildings, MPK1 through MPK19. MPK20 is actually a virtual building, no bricks and mortar. Sun employees logged in to this virtual world come to work in the morning by guiding their avatars through the “front door,” then head into their “cubes” to check e-mail. Later, they may visit the “water cooler” and talk to colleagues.
They can work, talk to each other, go to meetings, go out for a walk-do anything an employee regularly does, only it’s on a screen.
“If we can engage kids early on in this whole new way to learn, we’ve got an advantage,” McNealy said. “We need to get the educational community fully behind this, plus get other companies and organizations involved, for this to start getting traction. It can really work. We need to do something about our education conventions; the old ones aren’t working.”
There are about 200 alpha users in the Wonderland program now testing it in various ways.
“Sun has the right technology, and we see this as an exponentially growing sector over the next several years,” said alpha user Warren Sheaffer, chairman of the computer science department at Saint Paul College, in St. Paul, Minn. “And it’s all open source, so we can open it up and tear it apart to build our own curriculum around it.”
McNealy also touched on another idea: That all colleges some day will post their entire curricula online, allowing anybody in the world to attend for no cost — then awarding diplomas to a top percentage of students who completed the coursework.
He also suggested that these colleges and universities — of which some endowments are growing exponentially [such as Stanford, Harvard, and other private schools] — could make their money at later dates from the companies that hire their graduates.
“If they’ve had the use of a good employee for, say, five years, somebody who’s helped them do good business and make money, then I’ll bet they’ll consider it,” McNealy said.
School officials in the audience, who came from as far away as New Zealand, Eastern Europe and Russia, seemed enthused by McNealy’s presentation.
A question to McNealy came from the audience: “This is something that should be a campaign issue, the idea of this new [open source] education. Have you taken this to any of the [presidential] campaigns?”
McNealy acted sheepish as he delivered his answer. “Well, I’m a little intimidated about going to the Obama and Clinton people,” he said. “I’m afraid they’ll see me as just another capitalist Republican CEO trying to make more money for his company. I do have an appointment with McCain’s education chief next week.
“The only one I’ve talked to about this so far is Mitt Romney, and that’s not going to do us much good at this point.”