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Hollowed Out Schools

The importance of the Internet to the future of K12 education.


It's understandable. Today's schools severely underutilize the educational power of the Internet. The impact of Internet-based technologies on school organization, student groupings, interactions between teachers and learners, teaching methods, learning activities, and curriculum resources is minimal. It should be transforming school district operations and providing individualized learning plans customized to the needs and interests of every student, but it isn't-and that's understandable.

But then, he predicted, would come a "breakthrough that we cannot imagine today."

It's understandable because the World Wide Web and the graphical browser interface are barely as old as my teenage daughter. At the birth of the modern Internet, way back in 1993, most of us were focused on the personal computer, which was just coming into its own as the centerpiece of the technological universe. As PC-based client-server local area networks displaced mainframes and minicomputers, school districts and homes across America pursued PCs as everyday information and education resources.

A Hollow PC?

It was quite a coup for the little PC, considering it was barely 15 years old. Yet, even then with the PC in ascendency, along came Eric Schmidt (now CEO of Google, but then chief technical officer for Sun Microsystems), claiming that advanced wide area networks would "hollow out the computer," making it a mere peripheral to near limitless resources housed across a vast network of networks.

Of course, Schmidt could not then have fully envisioned today's Internet, so it's understandable that many saw his claim as far-fetched. We knew that the information-delivery capacity of the PC and its connection to other PCs through local area networks was strictly limited to local resources (i.e., those available in software in individual PCs or on local servers) but we were content with that. It fit nicely into the traditional organizational structure of K12 education, which was-and for the most part still is-based on the physical co-location of teachers, students, and curriculum materials. The PC added value to the model, and there was no compelling technology-based reason to change.

Or was there? In 1990, three years before Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina wrote the code for Mosaic-the first graphical browser of the Internet-Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun, made a bold prediction about the fast-approaching future. Citing the momentum of Moore's Law, he said that "it was pretty much determined" that the first half of the 1990s would be dominated by Microsoft and the existing PC model. But then, he predicted, would come a "breakthrough that we cannot imagine today" claiming it would come not from Microsoft, Sun, or any established technology company, but "from people and companies we cannot know today."

The Rise of the Innovators

He was prescient. Yahoo started in 1994 as a student hobby, incorporated in March 1995, and went public with just 49 employees in April 1996. Jeff Bezos quit his job on Wall Street in 1994, moved to Seattle, and after considering what would sell best online, launched in July 1995 and took the company public less than two years later in 1997.

Similarly, eBay began in 1995 as AuctionWeb, listing just a single broken laser pointer, which sold for $14.83, much to the surprise of founder Pierre Omidyar. The company went public in 1998, making Omidyar an instant billionaire. And as astounding as it seems now, Google didn't even start until September 1998, opening in a Menlo Park, Calif., garage with a staff of three.

These companies-and dozens of other similar upstarts-have forever changed how information is created, stored and shared, and they have indeed fulfilled Schmidt's prediction of the "hollowed out computer" (i.e., Without the Web, my computer hardly seems worth turning on). It's understandable that they haven't yet hollowed out the schoolhouse, but it would be inexcusable to fail to see that they will. It's time to radically rethink how schooling occurs-or we can just leave it to the as yet unknown innovators.

Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.