The Internet style of learning
An Interview with Allan Weis, founder of ThinkQuest
By Heather Clopton
What I've always wanted to do is get students from dissimilar schools working together, because the students who are not in the very good schools actually learn from the students who are in the better schools. --Allan Weis
y his own
account, Allan Weis, a former IBM vice president and current
President and CEO of Advanced Network and Services, Inc.
was not an exemplary student. In fact, he finished high school in the lowest tenth
of his class. If you ask him why, he will tell you, simply, that he was
bored. The founder of ThinkQuest couldn't get
excited about learning in a
Weis's experience as a student is not something he has forgotten. Since the early 1980s, he has had a vision of how education can be. Now, he is making this vision reality. His idea for ThinkQuest was born out of a concern that, as a result of growing up in the information age, students in the 1990s think and learn best in ways unfamiliar to many parents and teachers. New modes of teaching need to be created that draw upon and incorporate these new ways of learning. According to Weis, we should look to the students for these constructs--they are the ones who can build the tools that will best educate other students.
ThinkQuest provides one model for how to accomplish this. Students compete for scholarships by building educational Internet resources, which are then available on the Web for teachers and other students to use. The goal of the contest is to promote collaboration among students from different schools and backgrounds in order to bridge gaps in technology and knowledge levels.
What were you doing before
Why don't I start with my work career? I worked for IBM for 30 years. I started as a third shift computer operator and left it as a fairly senior Vice President with world-wide responsibility for all of the engineering and scientific computing and anything that was related to high performance computing. I actually left in 1990 and I formed Advanced Network and Services, Inc. a few days later.
How did you go from being a third shift operator to a vice president? That's quite a climb.
I had many, many jobs. I taught myself programming when I was an operator and I corrected many of the programs that the programmers sent in. So I was only an operator for about six weeks before the manager of programming came down and said, "You're now a programmer." It was in the very early days when you could move very rapidly in a growing industry. I eventually ended up in Poughkeepsie working on operating systems and then at IBM research, and I did very well at IBM research. I ran all of the engineering design and all the programming development tools and all the computing communications across the European labs. Then I came back and I was corporate director of programming for a while. I was very lucky moving from job to job.
When you retired from IBM in 1990, you became involved in the
The Internet at that time was in its very early stages, and I had gotten into the Internet several years before. When the National Science Foundation (NSF) network was running at 56K they had put a proposal out on the street to bring it to T1. With a group of my friends, we decided to bid the NSF net. We did bid and we did win, and we took the NSF net from 56K to T1. In 1989 we could see that if the network was going to grow at the same rate that it had grown in the previous few years, it would take an industrial-type organization to manage that growth and manage the technology that would allow that growth. We would have to bring it to T3 in a year, and no one had ever done anything with 45 million bits per second, so I figured, "Gee that would be fun."
How challenging was that project?
It was exhausting. We managed to do it, with the help of IBM and MCI, in about two years. We had it running at about half of 45 megs about nine months into the company and we had the first 45 million bits per second network on the Internet about three years before anyone else did. It spanned the country with about 12,000 miles of network going from Massachusetts all the way to the island of Hawaii, and we cut the country three times north and south and three times east and west. It was used by all of the universities in the United States. The NSF net ran on top of that network, as well as many of the department of energy sites and some of the NASA sites. Our commercial business grew by leaps and bounds as the Internet became stronger and faster and more applications emerged, and I wanted to do something else. I had some ideas on how we could really influence education.
"[The Internet] will be a better learning environment because the learning tools
will have been developed by students, who have a different mind
set than adults."
Did it just hit you one day, that you wanted to create ThinkQuest?
No, it hit me really in the late '80s, the idea for ThinkQuest. But I didn't have the time and I didn't have the money to follow through. In '92-'93 I really wanted to do it, so I took it to my board and said I really want to do this thing, this contest. They said that's a great idea go ahead, but I didn't have the time. I was too busy with the company. And I didn't have the money, enough money to do it. Then in 1995, we sold the assets and the operations of the company to America Online, which gave me both the time to do something like this and the money. The timing was much better than had I tried to do it in the '80s, because more schools were connected, the tools that the students could use were much easier to use, and the Web wasn't available in the '80s. So I got a group of folks together, and we beat this around for a day or so and everyone helped shape it. We wrote it up . . .
When this group was planning ThinkQuest, was the collaboration idea
important from the beginning?
Yes. Let me give you a little genesis of this. The Internet is a wonderful, wonderful tool for education. And I was worried about a couple of things. As wonderful as it is, it also has the potential of further separating the gap between students that are going to schools that are very high on the information technology ladder and students that are going to schools that are not quite as high. I was also worried that teachers wouldn't teach subjects or wouldn't teach computers if they were not familiar with the technology. And most teachers weren't.
I was also concerned that the materials that the students get in the schools are being built by adults. When I work with my nephew--he's a little kid, and he beats me at Nintendo all the time--his mind thinks differently than mine does. He's been brought up in a different world than I was brought up in. He learns differently than I learn. When he goes to school in a couple of years he's going to be taught using the same materials that I was taught with, and I was bored with that. So, I figure, these kids could really make a difference if we would empower the kids and let them build tools that would teach other kids to learn using the learning models in the kids' heads.
To solve them, we structured ThinkQuest as a contest, to pull the kids in. We've given about 160 workshops around the country and maybe 15 or 20 now around the world, where we bring teachers in and teach them a little bit about the Web, the Internet, how to build pages. We try to take the mystery out. To show them that, hey, there is no magic in this stuff and it's pretty easy. Last year we educated about 10,000 teachers, and we'll do another 10-15,000 this year. And those teachers then help the students get involved in the contest.
So you have actually seen that happening?
Oh yes. There was a wonderful example of a student who came from- these students were in the finals--came from Tangier Island in the Chesapeake, and Tangier Island has about 700 residents. This student worked with two other students at the Walt Whitman High School that has a population of about 1,500 students, so there were twice as many people at the high school than there were on the island. His PC was so very small that he couldn't use a browser, so he had to write all of his HTML in Perl text and send it off to his teammates to be compiled. He never met his teammates; he never saw his entry. But he envisioned how it would work, and his teammates helped him and sort of told him that it doesn't work this way, it works that way. And they did very well. And he learned--he never met the team mates; he never saw the entry until he got to the finals, and he only was able to get to the computer for an hour in the morning. He had to shuck clams and clean crabs during the day. And that's just one--there are hundreds of stories. They're wonderful.
". . . I think we are doing something that is going to have a lasting
effect, that is really going to change people's lives."
When you say Internet style of learning, is that the type of thing you're
That's what I'm talking about. Where there's an enormous amount of collaboration. Where students build on each others' work not just in the creation of an educational tool, but for example there are entries where people can construct a little bridge, out of, for example, sticks, but they are sticks on the screen. Or they can construct a house and once the house or bridge is constructed, they can put weights on it and you can see the compression and expansion as more weights are put on it. It's an entry in statics. You can rotate it in three dimensions as you are breaking it. It's called Build It and Bust It. And it has a library. Once you build something, a bridge or a house, you can put it in the library for others to test and use. So it's the kind of entry that the more people use it, the richer the entry gets. And that's one of the things we're looking for. There are many entries like that. The more students that use it, the higher the value to anyone else that uses it.
You say that you had phenomenal growth in the second year of
ThinkQuest. Can I assume there will be a third year?
This will be annual, yes. You can assume that there will be a third and a fourth and a fifth.
And are you going to continue to fund this?
What do you get out of this--why are you doing this?
You know, when I was at IBM, I built products year after year, I developed operating systems year after year, and two years later, it was hard to remember what I did, and if you asked anyone around me, hey you remember that product and that operating system, no one did. Here, I think we are doing something that is going to have a lasting effect, that is really going to change people's lives. Gives you a different feeling inside when you can do something like that. We just happened to be at the right time at the right place with this. You can see that it really is having a fundamental impact on the way kids are looking at the Internet today and the way teachers are looking at it. It is pulling the technology into the schools. The students are really owning it and building some wonderful tools.
". . .if you want to get the teachers involved, you're going to have to reward
the teachers, and if you want to get the schools involved, you
should reward the schools."
How do you think the Internet in the next five years is going to change
or affect or impact these kids and education, and when you were talking
about collaboration between the low-tech and high-tech schools, how do
you think ThinkQuest and the Internet are going to affect that gap?
Well if this contest really works, if the program really works the way I want it to, there will be a small number--I mean when you look at all the students in the country, all of them aren't going to participate--there will be a small number, maybe a couple thousand, that actually do work across different schools and benefit. It might take tens of thousands every year, and that's going to have an impact. Maybe other programs will embody some of the ideas, but I think the important thing is that there will be a wonderful library of educational tools on the Internet for other students. There will be a rich library of very useful educational tools on the Internet for students in grade 7-12, and probably there will be a lot of students in lower grades who use it.
So the Internet will be a better place for students, and--now I'm putting the contest aside--and I'm just saying it will be a better learning environment because the learning tools will have been developed by students, who have a different mind set than adults. I think that is already having an impact when you take a look at the number of students that are using it. Incidentally, about a third of the entries that made the finals were integrated--and this was only after a few months--into the curriculum of other schools.
When you were developing this contest, did you have a model that you
were following, or did the team come up with the whole thing. Because
it seems like it's worked very well, incredibly well.
If you understand the fundamental issues that you are trying to solve or trying to improve, and you're a small organization like we are, all that a CEO can do or all that a small organization can do is create an environment for people to work in and then try to establish the right dynamics within that environment. That's what I've done almost all my life. When you take over a new organization, you try to figure out what the problems are, and then you try to mold the environment and put the right rewards out there.
I thought that the right way to address these problems was through this kind of a construct, a contest construct, and I thought that back in the 80s. The right rewards--I figured if I put $25,000 out as prize money, no one would bother. But if I put $25,000 per student on the winning team out and a million dollars in prizes, that people would say wow. And I think this today is the largest contest in the world, and that's one year after it started. The basic construct is an environment with a reward at the end. You put a carrot in the places where you want things to happen.
One of the things that this committee helped me with was if you want to get the teachers involved, you're going to have to reward the teachers, and if you want to get the schools involved, you should reward the schools. That's one of the reasons we extended the rewards. For example, the best of contest gets $25,000 scholarship per student and $5,000 cash for the teacher and $5,000 cash for the school. We try to motivate the school to get the teacher involved and teacher to get the students involved.