Tech firms merge ideas to promote online learning

On a recent visit to a school library with his sons, the co-founder of U.S. tech giant Sun Microsystems noticed not one book was off the shelf.


Instead, students were working on their laptops, instant messaging with their cellphones or listening to their iPods while doing their homework.


“I looked around and not one person was looking at the books,” said Scott McNealy. “They go to the library because it’s quiet. It’s insulated with all of these books.”


McNealy, now chairman of California-based Sun Microsystems, and Mike Zafirovski, the CEO of Nortel Networks Corp., are looking to the Internet to bridge what they call the digital and educational divides.


Nortel’s educational website LearniT and curriculum-based Curriki, originally founded by Sun Microsystems and now an independent non-profit organization, announced recently they are partnering to promote online learning.

They are co-ordinating their websites into what they say will be one of the world’s largest, free online sources of educational materials for teachers and students.

Zafirovski said students and teachers can learn from each other.

“Lots of youth are becoming very savvy using technology,” Zafirovski said.

“And our perspective has been if we can get teachers to be much more comfortable using technology, then that will be the perfect marriage of bringing technology, teachers and students together,” he said.

McNealy said the alliance with Nortel will help Curriki meet its goal of providing students, teachers and parents with free digital textbooks and lesson plans from kindergarten to Grade 12 to be used anywhere in the world.

The Nortel site encourages learning through the use of digital technologies such as video or the creation of web pages.

The idea is to get the students inspired.

“We do think that using technology with the latest tools gets kids much more excited to learn,” Zafirovski said.

McNealy agreed, saying the goal is to “steal some of the excitement, energy and instant feedback that you get in the gaming world.”

“I’ve never seen anyone pick up a third-grade math book and throw it across the room and run around the room and tell everybody, ‘I did it, I did it.’ But when my boy gets to the next level on the Wii game machine then he runs around the house telling everybody.”

Using the LearniT website, a teacher could bring to life a traditional lesson plan on the science of weather through digital satellite imaging, showing students how weather systems interact globally. The teacher could then upload the lesson to both the LearniT and Curriki websites, making it available to any teacher anywhere.

On the Curriki site, lesson plans that teachers can view include one on getting students to shoot basketball hoops to learn about decimals, and another one on reading and understanding satirical literature.

Praise and challenges

  • Professor Philip Abrami, of Montreal’s Concordia University, said the notion of sharing learning materials online is laudable but quality needs to be at a certain level and teachers have to buy in to the concept.