An Interview with Professor Richard Baraniuk: About Connexions

Jul 29, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) The theme of this contest was “Transforming Education: Investment, Innovation and Inclusion.” How does your proposal relate to these themes?

We applied to the WISE Awards because the goals of the WISE Initiative resonate with the goals of Connexions. We both believe that the world’s many problems (climate change, disease, hunger, energy, to name just a few) will only be solved by an educated populace. We also both believe that the world’s education problems transcend political boundaries and can only be solved by common action. Connexions has been enabling global educational innovation since 1999 and aims to radically increase the quality of the educational experience for everyone, everwhere while simultaneously lowering its cost.

2) In your mind, what areas of education need to be transformed?

Too few people have access to a high-quality education. The only way to raise the standard of education worldwide is to remove the current roadblocks, which include the high price of and limited access to quality educational materials in all of the necessary languages and cultural contexts.

Another problem is that the standard model of education provides only “off the rack” learning that is “one size fits all”. It is well understood from the science of learning that to maximize learning outcomes we must customize the presentation to each learner’s individual background, interests, and learning goals.

Connexions is attacking all of these problems by modularizing textbooks so that they can be easily customized, by inviting authors worldwide to contribute in different languages and for different cultural contexts, and by making all of the materials free to enable open access.

3) In your opinion, where does money need to be invested?

Investment in open textbooks and learning materials makes a lot of sense, because the result can achieve a significant worldwide impact, can be continuously updated to keep up with fast moving fields like technology and medicine, and can be customized locally to maximize educational outcomes.

The development of a successful open textbook for, say, high-school Chemistry will also put pressure on conventional academic publishers to provide more value for the high prices they charge. This will naturally drive the ecosystem of Chemistry materials towards higher quality and lower cost, which is a big win for the world.

4) What are some particularly innovative things that you have seen or suggested?

When we started Connexions in 1999 we had to invent many of the building blocks that today are standard practice in the industry. Things like breaking textbooks into smallish modules to make them more customizable, using XML semantic markup, using open licenses for content and not just software, etc.

Another innovative aspect of Connexions that is our invention of “lenses” that enable 3rd parties like professional societies, school districts, governments, etc. to peer review our content and point to it from a customized portal. Ensuring that high-quality Connexions materials are easily accessible to users requires both a means to evaluate and credential materials and a means to direct users to those deemed of high quality. Traditional publishers generally stick with the age-old editorial review process, whereby material is vetted and peer-reviewed before it is made publicly available. Such a prepublication review process would not scale to the eventual large size and activity level of Connexions, nor would it foster social networking or community. Instead, Connexions admits all contributions and then opens up the editorial process to third-party reviewers and editorial bodies for postpublication review via a system of lenses (see cnx.org/lenses).

Each organization sets the quality standards and review mechanism for their lens. Several professional societies have partnered with Connexions to review materials in their disciplines. The IEEE Signal Processing Society has set up a Connexions sub-committee to review and endorse electrical engineering materials (see IEEEcnx.org). The National Council of Professors of Education Leadership is reviewing and endorsing materials used to train the next generation of school principals and superintendents. The Shuttleworth Foundation’s Siyavula project is having South African K-12 teachers engage in peer review as a professional development opportunity so that both the quality of the materials and the teaching will improve over time.

5) What do you mean by inclusion and why is it important?

Inclusion to me means that anyone interested in learning should have access to high quality educational content and anyone interested in contributing their knowledge should be welcomed.

By design, Connexions provides universal access to high-quality educational materials: all content is available for free to anyone connected to the Internet. Connexions’ users come from 200 countries – over 75% of them from outside of the USA. And thanks to our generous Creative Commons CC-By license, Connexions materials can be printed locally and repurposed in any way in order to reach as broad an audience as possible. Learners worldwide are taking advantage of our materials; each month Connexions serves over 2 million unique users from 200 countries.

Content contributions are welcome from everyone, no matter what their academic pedigree, which brings great diversity to the content. Indeed, some of Connexions most innovative and highest impact content comes from so-called “shut-outs” who would not be welcome as authors in the conventional publishing world. Catherine Schmidt-Jones (a private music teacher from Illinois, USA) has contributed music theory textbooks that have been used over 20 million times to date. Sunil Singh (an engineer and parent from Delhi, India) has contributed high-school physics materials that have been used over 6 million times to date. Other examples of Connexions’ incredibly diverse content includes: early readers in Hindi and several Indian dialects, a K-12 curriculum for South Africa in English and Afrikaans, music theory, science and technology courses produced by a consortium of 40 Vietnamese universities, university textbooks, and project reports produced by undergraduate engineering students. Free community college textbooks are dramatically lowering the cost of education for some of the USA’s most at-risk students (in some states, textbooks costs now exceed tuition costs).

Original and translated Connexions content is currently available in over 40 languages. Connexions encourages non-Englsh content in order to better enable advanced education in developing countries.

6) Any additional comments you’d like to provide?

If you need more info on Connexions you can have a look at:

  • My Connexions writings at: http://web.ece.rice.edu/richb/connexions/writings/
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