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A Conversation with Richard Baraniuk

University Business, November 2012

Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical and computer science at Rice University in Houston, is founder of the nonprofit education project Connexions. Connexions is a pioneer in open education resources, acting as a repository for more than 17,000 learning objects and over 1,000 collections (textbooks and journal articles) that are used by over 2 million people each month. The materials are freely accessible and can be remixed and repurposed for individual needs. Baraniuk spoke to UB about the open education movement and the new OpenStax College initiative to provide free high-quality textbooks.
UB: You’ve described two factors in a “perfect storm” that are paving the way to open education. Can you elaborate on them?

Baraniuk: The perfect storm metaphor is a good one because either of these factors individually would be sufficient to put some pressure on the education world, but when they come simultaneously as they are now, I think it will accelerate the pace of change remarkably. The first of these is the access gap, the fact that the costs of education are spiraling out of control. Student debt is now past a trillion dollars and, in some places, the textbooks actually cost more than the tuition. It amazes me that the price of learning materials can now exceed the price of actually going to school. So when someone is dropping out of one of these colleges because they can’t afford it, it is as much a fault of the high price of materials as it is any fault of the institution. That’s because textbook costs have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation for 20 or 25 years.

The second factor is that we have a huge amount of technological opportunity with the internet and the ability to develop materials in entirely new ways. We’ve gone from textbooks to simple PDF files, to these massive online courses, where lectures and social interactions can be made available to people at essentially zero cost. So when you combine this money-saving technology with the fact that everyone says we have to cut the cost of education, I think we’re going to see a rapid move to some of these new modalities of distributing learning materials, taking courses, and earning credit for them.
UB: Connexions was launched in 1999. Does it seem that you were just waiting for the times to catch up to your vision?

Baraniuk: The thing that amazes me is that the ethos of Connexions hasn’t changed a bit in 13 years. Nothing has really deviated along the way. So yes, we were a bit ahead of our time, and we are waiting for the world to catch up. Now that the world is catching up it is very fun.
UB: What is OpenStax College and what does it bring to the mix?

Baraniuk: OpenStax grew out of our realization that although Connexions allows anyone to provide and get access to free learning materials, it has limits. Let’s say you are a psychology professor who wants to save your students some money. You go to Connexions hoping to find a psychology textbook, but there isn’t one. While Connexions has grown rapidly, it doesn’t cover all areas, and the areas it does cover are sometimes uneven. There might be part of a psychology text, but not the PowerPoint slides or the test banks that the instructor likes to use.

We started OpenStax College as a way to get high-quality, open-licensed textbooks in the hands of more people. It is configured more like a regular publisher. We will produce super high-quality textbooks, written by professionals and carefully peer-reviewed and edited. And they’ll include all the add-ons you need to make a turnkey, adoptable solution for a professor, with test banks, PowerPoint slides, image libraries, and so on.

I think just about everyone agrees that open education is a disruptive force, but I don’t think anyone really knows how it is going to play out yet.

We’re starting with an initial library of 25 free, open-source textbooks that can address the needs of the 25 highest impact introductory college courses. Then the decision of adopting an open, free book becomes pretty easy because it’s high quality, the students are going to learn well, and they will save money.

UB: How do Connexions and OpenStax sustain themselves?

Baraniuk: Connexions was built with philanthropic support, but we also have a number of universities, companies, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that use Connexions or have an interest in it. They fund a consortium that helps develop some of the software Connexions needs. The other avenue is through sister projects like OpenStax College. The books are free, but if you go to Amazon you can obtain an EPUB or Kindle version of the book. You can also get high-quality print copies of the books. In each of those cases, people pay for the service of getting a paper version or a Kindle version. A portion of that money goes to sustain the project long-term.
UB: Do authors get paid for their work?

Baraniuk: Connexions authors do not get paid. They are essentially trading royalties for impact. With OpenStax College, we use philanthropic money from the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Rice University and others to pay authors up front. They get paid a fee before the book is sold.
UB: Do they retain any content control?

Baraniuk: When you contribute to Connexions, all you are doing is putting a Creative Commons license on your material and it goes into the repository. You own it. But if Rice University is providing funds to help develop content for OpenStax, they own the copyright to that material.
UB: You’ve noted that e-textbooks can use data and machine learning algorithms to learn about students as they learn from the book. How does that work?

Baraniuk: Machine learning is something you use every day. Google is basically a machine learning company. They mine the web and match the words you type in the search bar with their huge index of what they think you mean. It’s all about looking at data. If you’ve ever had Netflix recommend a movie, or Amazon recommend a book, that’s all machine learning. They are data mining what you click on, what you buy, what movies you watch. Then they feed that into these algorithms and what comes out is a prediction about what you might like to do next.

Just imagine applying those same ideas to learning. You open your text and it says, “Given what you did yesterday and how you performed, and given what we need to learn by next week, I suggest you do the following lessons today.” The lessons you get will be different than the ones I get. There are unlimited opportunities to bring the best of personalized tutoring into the textbooks.

So the textbooks of the future—and by future I mean three years from now—are not going to be just flat PDF files that are electronic pictures of what you’d find in a paper text. They will be an immersive, interactive, adaptive experience. I believe this is one of the most exciting ways to really bring up the standard of education worldwide.

UB: Badge-based certification and stacked credentials are a big component of the open education initiative. Will traditional colleges and universities begin to recognize these as part of their degree requirements?

Baraniuk: I think just about everyone agrees that open education is a disruptive force, but I don’t think anyone really knows how it is going to play out yet. There are three kinds of institutions out there. First, there are those that absolutely embrace this and ride the wave. Then there are organizations like Coursera, which is a consortium of institutions that offer MOOCs. These institutions don’t necessarily want to take a leadership role, but want to get involved and be in the game. Finally, there are the institutions that are turning a blind eye to this and hoping it all goes away. I think history shows that they are going to be surprised, unfortunately.

The certification area is where there is the most chance for unintended consequences. I agree with people like Clayton Christensen, who feel that we’re going to go from a country with thousands of two- and four-year colleges to an order of magnitude smaller number within a couple of decades. That’s because of economic factors, but also the fact that once everything goes online and people figure out how to really certify these online courses, it will be very hard for some of these schools to compete. I’m not saying that’s a good thing—it could be a very bad thing—but I believe it’s an economic inevitability.