Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Utility I Hoped For…

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Back in 1973, while a State Legislator, I proposed that the State of Massachusetts fund the development of what I termed “A Statewide Information Utility.”

In 1976-77 I expanded the idea to “A National Information Utility” as part of an application for a White House Fellowship. Having reached the Regional Finalist stage, I was interviewed by a panel of judges. Among them was the late Ella Grasso, then Governor of Connecticut. Her damning critique at the time was. “You don’t really believe that people will read books and magazines on a TV screen, do you?”

Over the years I have seen the concept expand, leading to the Internet we have today.

My deepest regret, however, was that it never truly developed into the universal, free, educational medium that I had envisioned.

That has finally begun to change.

A wide range of free, structured classroom courses are available for grades K-12 from the Kahn Academy.

Underwritten largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kahn Academy offers tutorials in Math, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History and Economics. It also offers preparation tutorials for the SAT’s.

If your school age child needs tutoring in one of these subjects, or simply wants to get a leg up on their education, I urge you and them to investigate the resources offered by this project. I repeat, all courses are available at no charge.

I hope that, in the future, this project can expand into adult education. One of the greatest challenges we face as a society is that of structural unemployment – adult workers whose skills have been made obsolete by changing technologies. Many of these displaced workers lack either the financial resources or the flexibility of time to avail themselves of for-profit internet universities or regional brick-and-mortar-based programs.

Expansion of the Kahn Academy model into a free source of continuing education beyond the secondary level could make a major contribution to America’s competitiveness in the world. Courses in computer programming, computer science, finance, bookkeeping, accounting, medical technology, and numerous other areas coupled with paid internships could transition the unemployed as well as the previously unemployable far more seamlessly into the new economy than is currently the case.

It would also provide a mechanism for driving down the spiraling costs of post-secondary education by providing a free, non-profit alternative.

As noted in my comment below, there is another valuable asset available to students.
One of the most fundamental elements of a true education is an acquaintance with classic literature.
Project Gutenberg offers over 36,000 FREE ebooks to download to your PC, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Android or other portable device. Choose between ePub, Kindle, HTML and simple text formats.
It can be accessed at


  1. Ken,

    Thank you for sharing this as I would have not known this was out there. I just went on the website and it is amazing to see all the links to the tutorials for help!

    My daughters will appreciate this as they are still in school (High School & Grade School).

    I know we don't always agree on things, but this is one of them that I do agree with you on and am very glad, as I said in the begining, that you did share this. I have marked this with my favorites, and will also share with the public.

  2. Ken, great job!

    You were Al Gore before Gore was Gore!

    Ella Grasso's comments remind me of Ken Olsen's comments, who ran, of all places, Digital Equipment.

    He is famous for saying:

    "The personal computer will fall flat on It's face in business."

    "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

    Nice to see you are a visionary, at least!

  3. Monique:
    Thanks for your kind words. I do hope that you will share this with other parents. Anything that can help with our students’ educational needs, especially at no cost, is of inestimable value.
    Another site that you and others might find worthwhile is:

    Project Gutenberg offers over 36,000 free ebooks to download to your PC, Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Android or other portable device. Choose between ePub, Kindle, HTML and simple text formats.

    Dennis, your kind words are equally appreciated. Too bad there’s no proft in being a visionary.

  4. Mary Ellen PrencipeJune 7, 2011 at 9:05 PM

    Ken, thank you for making us aware of this invaluable resource. Spreading the word...


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.