High school dropout Sergey Brin has a few ideas on how the educational system should be improved. Not surprisingly from a guy who co-founded Google, where he still serves as president of technology and one of the company’s three key decision-makers, a lot of those ideas center on computers.
“It’s important for students to be put in touch with real-world problems,” Brin said. “The curriculum should include computer science. Mathematics should include statistics. The curriculums should really adjust.”
He advocated putting all textbooks on computers, to make for easier access, and for putting high school students to work — writing Wikipedia articles, and teaching technology to senior citizens and middle school students. In teaching, they will learn.
Brin spoke today at a conference on Google’s campus, Breakthrough Learning in the Digital Age, which the tech company is co-hosting with Common Sense Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. By and large, speakers passionately spoke of the advantages of equipping schools with the latest in digital technology, and of engaging students on their home turf — computers.
Google has been relatively quiet in the field of education, but the company is starting to make a splash. For the last three years, it has given schools the premium version of its Google Apps, enabling schools to run their business and provide teachers with e-mail and other tools that it typically charges corporations for. In part, the giveaway helps advance Google’s plan of…
…providing universal access to all the world’s information; in part it helps prepare the workforce of tomorrow; and it also is indoctrinating that workforce with the Google brand.
“The kids who are in school are our future business leaders,” said Cristin Frodella, product marketing manager for the Google Apps, Education Edition. “If they like Google Apps now, they’ll ask for it by name. There is a value there.”
The presence of Brin at the conference, as well as Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and company vice president Marissa Mayer, speaks volumes to the company’s commitment to education, said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, an advocacy group. “It’s a very positive symbolic role,” Steyer said. “Google is serious about helping kids, particularly disadvantaged kids.”
Brin, wearing some funky new Vibram FiveFingers shoes that fit the feet like a glove, told how his family enrolled him in a Montessori school from age 6 to 11, where he was able to explore his own interests in learning. “The school had an Apple II,” said Brin, now 36. “When I was 9, my parents gave me a Commodore 64, which was fun. At the time, the opportunity to program your own computer was easier than it is today. Today there are significantly larger barriers because of the complexity built into computing.”
After he left the Montessori school, Brin felt he was stuck in a 19th-century curriculum, and he ultimately quit high school after his junior year. He remains on leave from Stanford, where he was working on his doctorate when he and Larry Page hit upon the algorithm that led to Google, and turned them both into billionaires.
Brin had some other ideas for improving schools, most notably treating teachers better. His mother-in-law, Esther Wojcicki, who spoke at the conference, teaches English and journalism at Palo Alto High School, and many of his friends are teachers. “It’s really a miserable job,” he said. “They’re not really paid a living wage.”
Brin foresees computers getting cheaper and cheaper, and broadband access becoming more ubiquitous, which will make computers more a part of education than ever. A relatively new parent, Brin was asked by moderator James Bennet, editor of Atlantic magazine, what kind of technological world he envisions 15 or 20 years from now.
Brin said he hoped that the increasingly powerful access to information would free people up to become more capable individuals. But he did see a downside.
“When I was growing up, I always knew I’d be in the top of my class in math, and that gave me a lot of self-confidence,” he said. But now that studens can see beyond their own school or hometown, they see that “there are always going to be a million people better than you at times, or someone will always be far better than you. I feel there’s an existential angst among young people. I didn’t have that. They see enormous mountains, where I only saw one little hill to climb.”