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Leveling the higher ed playing field with free educational content

University Business, February 2014

Fourteen years ago, as a Victor E. Cameron professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston, Richard G. Baraniuk was frustrated that he couldn’t find the ideal book for his class. He knew there were tens of dozens of other professors out there with the same concern, so rather than write a book to suit his own needs, in 1999, he solved a wider audience’s needs by founding Connexions, a platform for making high-quality educational content available for free on the web and at a very low cost in print.

Baraniuk, now Rice’s director of the Connexions and OpenStax initiatives, is UBTech 2014’s keynote speaker on Monday, June 16, where he will talk about “Disruptive Innovation with Open Education.” Through his research in machine learning, he is working to enhance textbooks for OpenStax College, a nonprofit organization supported by Rice that is committed to improving student access to free, quality learning materials. We spoke with Baraniuk about the future of open educational content.

How do you see free materials fitting in with the world of traditional textbook publishing?

RICHARD BARANIUK: Right now the open text industry is still in its very early days and, as such, a nascent movement. Eventually, I think the open and traditional publishing worlds will coexist and benefit from each other, as there will be certain things that traditional publishers do really well and other things that the open world does really well.

For instance, OpenStax College’s textbooks and all the materials in Connexions are open-source licensed so that even commercial providers can build on top of them to improve their own offerings. We’re trying to provide better access to all high-quality learning experiences. If what we offer saves traditional publishers money, they’ll be able to lower their costs and that will help advance education.

How does free material expand the availability of information to students?

RB: We’re moving toward a world where there will be universal availability of high-quality material that can be obtained anywhere, anytime. The other thing that’s very exciting about open sourced texts is, in the future, professors will not choose a single textbook for a particular class. With open texts, instructors are invited to modify and customize them, creating a tremendous diversity of resources. Instructors will be able to make a customized version that fits the context of each class. As a result, learning will be improved.

There will be two levels to that: first, customization at the class or course level, where the instructor designs a book for class. Longer term, we will see more personalized versions. The books we produce are all modular and can be mixed and matched in different ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, however, in figuring out what a given student wants in terms of personalized learning materials.

In the future, will material come from everywhere?

RB: I argue that it will. We already have the ability for someone who’s not one of the usual suspects to either improve or write new materials from scratch. For example: a private K12 music teacher from Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Kitty Jones, wrote a music theory book for kids. She’s not a K12 teacher. She’s a private music teacher. Her music textbooks are closing in on 30 million uses in Connexions.

Here’s another example: Sunil Singh, a petrochemicals engineer from Delhi, India, was tutoring kids in physics when he realized the textbook he was using was unclear and other parts were wrong. He started making handwritten notes. When he saw kids with photocopies of photocopies, he put his work in Connexions. It has been used 8 million times, mostly in U.S. schools. He’s not a teacher. He’s not even American. So this shows the tremendous diversification of materials that is going to drive up quality and shows the kind of insights that people out in the real world can add.

What role will collaboration and peer reviews play in the way class materials are written?

RB: As diversification continues, not everything submitted will be great, so the challenge becomes how to find the good stuff. The answer is collaboration. Connexions currently collaborates with professional societies that apply their scientific review to our material. With OpenStax College, we adopted standards for developing educational materials, which involves multiple layers of peer review, classroom testing and careful editing.

Your website talks about adaptable resources. How will open texts be adaptable?

RB: There are two ways. One is by being modular, where, like LEGO blocks, they can be rearranged in different ways. Longer term, as we better understand how students learn, the modularity will be help us rearrange a student’s text book in real time, as they’re studying, to include all the remediation enrichment materials that are required in the right places, at the right times.

Will students collaborate with professors or have any influence over the material used?

RB: Yes, on a whole bunch of levels. First, there’s nothing stopping students from becoming authors. The students in my engineering class conduct a research project every year and then archive their results in Connexions, so they’re published authors. These projects get used by people around the world and they get referenced and built on by others.

We also find it useful to have students involved in the editing, writing and review process. They help get around what I call the “expert blind spot.” If someone has taught for 20 years, they can easily lose touch of the difference between what is hard and what is easy for students. Whereas, a student who took calculus last year will know that, and can offer some input on the right analogies to use. Also, to the students’ benefit, it’s a scientifically proven fact that if you teach, you learn more—so that will cement their knowledge and drive it home so they understand the material better.

For more information about Richard Barniuk's feature session, or about other UBTech sessions, click here.

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