Tech ed: Net solution needed

Ellison, McNealy say Internet will be key to ensuring a sufficiently educated, high-tech workforce in the future.

Several hundred business executives gathered in the heart of Silicon Valley Friday to hash out the problems facing the San Francisco Bay Area's near-term economic health, and one topic topped them all -- education.

It was generally agreed that the state's education system needs reform, but how to accomplish it in time to make a difference to the region's major employers remains a mystery.

At least two of the CEOs headlining at the Bay Area Council Outlook 99 conference at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel were in agreement that the Internet will offer at least a partial solution.

Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq:ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq:SUNW) CEO Scott McNealy said that the availability of online education can help build a more learned workforce to fuel economic growth in the 21st century.

Ellison: Educate globally
In his remarks, Ellison called for institutions such as Stanford University to reach out via the Internet to attract and educate a global student body.

Ellison said that U.S. colleges confer 50 percent of all college degrees worldwide, giving America a virtual corner on the higher education market.

By making the curriculum available in Asia and other developing regions, U.S. universities stand to increase both their revenues and the global supply of employable graduates.

McNealy echoed Ellison's remarks during a one-on-one interview with ZDNN, saying that online education can help level the playing field within the United States, by giving students access to the best teachers and schools regardless of their physical location.

McNealy's luncheon speech was wide-ranging, touching on several potential economic and political pitfalls facing California companies.

McNealy: Y2K fallout
At one point he sounded a warning about the Year 2000, or Y2K, crisis.

While the executive dismissed predictions of widespread catastrophe from the failure of computers to deal with the time change when the new century begins, he cautioned that the indirect effects of Y2K in Asia could have significant fallout in the United States.

The Asian economic crisis has prevented many companies in that region -- which is chock-a-block with electronics manufacturers -- from adequately investing in Y2K remedies.

While McNealy expects most U.S. companies to be doing business as usual on Jan. 1, 2000, computer failures in Asia could be widespread, leading to component shortages that will severely affect U.S. computer makers.

"If Asia shuts down, it's going to have a big impact -- especially here in Silicon Valley," McNealy said.

Educational disparity
Lockheed Martin CEO Vance Coffman, and California's newly minted governor, Gray Davis, also focused on educational reform.

Coffman called on the Bay Area's technology businesses to redouble their efforts to bolster educational standards by applying their products to school-related uses.

Video game designers, for example, could use their spellbinding electronic entertainment tools and content to revitalize school curricula, he said.

Coffman also emphasized the need for standardized testing in the schools, to help educators address a growing disparity between North American students and those in other Western nations. "That which gets measured, gets fixed," he said.

Gov. Davis used the forum to announce several new policies aimed at educational reform, including a $70 million program to institute summer literacy camps for grade-school children, training programs for school principals and peer review systems for evaluating teacher performance.