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Rice University’s Connexions

Open Education

On first glance — brown hair, pale skin, and undergrad-style clothes — Rich Baraniuk looks like an average guy. But look at his eyes, and you know you’re in the presence of something rare. They’re giant and brown and fairly glowing with the light of the millions of synapses firing at the same instant. They’re the eyes of a man who can’t sit still, of a guy bursting with animation, drive, pep, zest, zing, zip. All of which are necessary given the task Baraniuk took on three years ago, when he decided to write a book and ended up trying to change the way people — everywhere on the planet — think.

Like a lot of guys out to change the world, Baraniuk started out with a modest agenda. An electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University in Houston, he’d been teaching for about six years when he finally decided that the textbooks he was using weren’t doing their job. They weren’t helping his students learn as much as they should, and they didn’t support his teaching style. He decided he’d write a new, better textbook. So he went to the dean of the school of engineering and proposed the idea. The dean laughed. “Rich came in and said he needed to write a new, better book to teach his course,” says Dean C. Sidney Burrus. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. There’re already about 100 books on this subject. You’re going to write the 101st? Think of something new.’ And he did.”

That something new is called Connexions. As described in one of the many documents Baraniuk and the team he leads have used to raise funding, it’s “an experimental, open-source/open content project . . . that gives a learner . . . free access to educational materials that can be readily manipulated to suite her individual learning style. . . . The free software tools also foster the development, manipulation, and continuous refinement of educational material by diverse communities of authors and teachers.”

What does that mean, exactly? When it’s up and running, Connexions will offer an online library of networked content that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Experts around the world will develop and contribute modules of information specific to their own expertise. These modules — which may take the form of individual chapters, or even smaller sections of chapters — will act as a giant, constantly evolving library of information that can be tweaked to any given instructor’s satisfaction.

By selecting specific modules and then using Connexion’s free, XML-based editing tools to modify the emphasis of a given course, instructors will be able to create custom textbooks. Students could then go to Kinko’s and order a custom text incorporating the latest research, the best pedagogy — tailored to match their professor’s teaching style and the specific goals of the course at hand. Theoretically, the library will function across disciplines, and will aid teachers and students from kindergarten through graduate school. So far, more than 1000 modules now form the basis for nine electrical and computer engineering courses at Rice.

If that sounds ambitious, think about this: Connexions isn’t just about creating a collection of bite-sized informational chunks. It’s also about fostering a quantum leap in the evolution of literacy — something akin to the development of the first written language or the creation of the printing press. “My perspective about this,” says Burrus, “is not that it’s a just a product of one teacher’s frustrations. I think what we’re doing truly has the potential to change the way people think.”

The people at Connexions believe they’ve found a way to do that. Even more miraculously, a number of people — from the folks at the Hewlett Foundation to the administration at Rice to the U.S. Government — think they may be on to something.

Baraniuk’s big idea grew out of his own sense of frustration about the fragmentary way students learn and teachers teach. He was a great teacher — kids loved his classes — but he could see that they were missing a lot of fundamentals. The problem? The way knowledge was split up into discrete units that seemed so far removed from their lives and interests. “The way we teach breaks everything up and makes it discontinuous, ” says Baraniuk. “Kids would come in and say, ‘Why do I have to learn all this math? I’m interested in genetics.’ And after I sat down with them for half and hour and drew it out on a white board them and showed them how math relates to the field they really wanted to know about, how it was absolutely fundamental, they got it, and generally they’d do much better and learn much more.

“Which was great. I love that part of teaching. But my problem was, ‘Well, okay, how do I apply that understanding to a whole classroom full of students? I can’t sit down and explain the connections to each and every person in my lectures. I don’t have that kind of time. And I finally thought, ‘Wow, there’s just gotta be a better way.'”

Baraniuk’s main beef with traditional teaching and textbooks is that they’re too linear. Subjects are broken up into discrete units, and then never reconnected. Textbooks mirror this flaw in that they are completely linear, and depending on the particular focus of a course, tend to offer a great deal of irrelevant or redundant information, while failing to cast any illumination on vital subjects. Even worse, by the time they make it through writing, editing, school board reviews, publishing and finally into students hands, textbooks — especially in the fast moving sciences — are often obsolete.

By shaping raw knowledge into discrete chunks rather than 2000-page textbooks, Connexions aims to scratch a real-world itch that’s long been unreachable. Instructors will be able to do away with huge chunks of text that don’t apply to their courses, while culling the Connexions database for pieces that apply to their specific areas of instructors. To make that task manageable, Connexions will offer a series of “lenses” that allow users to limit the pool from which they’re choosing. In other words, if Baraniuk wanted to limit his search to courses that the dean liked, he could do so. Or he might choose to view modules that other users had ranked as effective, modules that students liked, modules that resulted in better test scores, modules approved by professional societies, modules produced by certain universities, or even for-fee modules created by Prentice-Hall.

In the last three years, the Connexions team has faced — and cleared — a lot of hurdles. The last of these turned on a legal issue: specifically, the development of licenses that would both protect authors’ intellectual property rights and allow the sort of open usage and modification that Connexions facilitates. “We felt totally hamstrung by our own legal department,” says Baraniuk. “I mean, it’s hard to come into the administration and say, look at all this great stuff we want to give away — the source code, the ability to publish and modify this content, the content itself.”

The problems occurred when the legal team at Rice, accustomed to protecting the university’s intellectual property, suddenly found itself face to face with a bunch of technologists who wanted to take a page from the open-source movement and adhere to an ethic of maximum openness.

“When we started trying to work through the issues, it wasn’t about the attorneys helping us iron out a few legal details,” says Ross Reedstrom, a research scientist at Rice and a Connexions programmer. “I spent hours and hours trying to educate our legal team about the concept of openness.”

The problem was that, to the legal team, “free” and “open” meant “unprotected.” And unprotected was not something the Rice legal team was willing to countenance. The clash was perhaps, inevitable. “It’s interesting that education is the place where the problem of licensing open, free materials became an issue,” says Chris Kelty, an anthropologist who studies the open source movement and is on staff at Connexions. “Educators traditionally build on the shoulders of their peers. This project is all about trying to systematize, formalize and facilitate something that already happens.”

After weeks of barely productive meetings that left the entire Connexions staff frustrated with the Rice legal team, Chris suggested that Connexions meet with his colleague, James Boyle, a law professor at Duke and Creative Commons boardmember. The meeting of needs and minds was instantaneous. “Creative Commons came along at the exact right time. We had this huge problem, how to license content in a way that left it open and dynamic, but still offered protections,” says Baraniuk. Sitting down together, Boyle, Reedstrom, and the Rice legal team were quickly able to hash through most of the remaining licensing issues. Creative Commons will provide the licenses that protect Connexions authors and the Connexions repository.

The licensing issues have the response from the academic community has been positive. “It’s been very easy to get professors to agree to write course modules,” says Baraniuk. “People really understand that with these licenses they aren’t giving up credit, and they are opening their ideas up to what is potentially a huge audience.”

The next hurdle? Filling the Connexions repository with strong content. “The big question now is the take off. When does the project leave the ground?,” says Kelty. “If we only get a bunch of mediocre DSP [Digital Signal Processing] texts, well, it won’t be that useful.”

But signs are that momentum is growing. Professors at other universities are beginning to take notice, and Dean Burrus recently chaired a National Academy of Engineering workshop about how to build an online educational initiative that transcends ownership by any one university and becomes a truly global entity. Attendees included representatives from the Department of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State, Columbia, and Carnegie Mellon. Finally, the Hewlett Foundation recently awarded the project a $1,000,000 grant to establish a sustainable business model.

“I think we really have a great chance at getting where we want to go,” says Baraniuk. “What distinguishes us from other initiatives is simple: we have Rice’s buy-in to the idea that at some point, we may spin this off into a creative nonprofit. That’s huge. That means we really could be global.”

Ashley Craddock is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Wired, Mother Jones, Working Woman and Marie Claire, among other places.

Posted 01 October 2005