Really Open Source

July 29, 2005

Few projects in academe have attracted the attention and praise in recent years of OpenCourseWare, a program in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is making all of its course materials available online -- free -- for anyone to use.

In the four years since MIT launched the effort, use of the courseware has skyrocketed, and several other universities have created similar programs, assembling material from their own courses.

With less fanfare than MIT, Rice University has also been promoting a model for free, shared information that could be used by faculty members and students anywhere in the world. But the Rice program -- Connexions -- is different in key respects. It is assembling material from professors (and high school teachers) from anywhere, it is offering free software tools in addition to course materials, and it is trying to reshape the way academe uses both peer review and publishing. The project also has hopes of becoming a major curricular tool at community colleges.

"I was just frustrated with the status quo," says Richard G. Baraniuk, in explaining how he started Connexions in 1999. "Peer review is severely broken. Publishing takes too long and then books are too expensive," he says. "This is about cutting out the middlemen and truly making information free."

Baraniuk is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, so many of the initial modules (which can either be materials for a course, a lecture or any other organizational unit) were in engineering and were submitted by Rice professors. But as Connexions has grown (from 200 modules in its second year to 2,300), it has attracted content in many disciplines and from many scholars.

There are materials for courses on art history, birds, business and graphic design. Offerings are particularly strong in music. And participating professors come from institutions including Cornell, Indiana State and Ohio State Universities, and the Universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Wisconsin at Madison. Professors from outside the United States have also started to use the site -- it offers materials from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Cambridge.

Use of the materials has grown steadily -- in May, more than 350,000 individuals used the site at some point, a mix of professors and students, about half of them on return visits.

Many of the professors participating are attracted by the idea that they may reach an audience beyond their campuses -- and an audience that doesn't have to pay. "Educational materials should be freely available to those who want to learn," says Bryson R. Payne, an assistant professor of computer science at North Georgia College & State University. While Payne says he loves teaching his courses on campus, he has been struck by how many people can't enroll in a traditional college but "simply want to expand their skills."

While many professors make an individual decision to put materials on the Connexions site, some colleges are making a point of putting material there from many courses.

The University of California's new campus at Merced, which begins undergraduate instruction in September, is working to get materials for many of its science courses on Connexions. Jeff Wright, dean of engineering at Merced, says that he is attracted to the way course materials can be designed to be interactive and can constantly be updated. While more and more textbooks these days feature CD-ROMs, they don't provide the flexibility that Connexions does, Wright says.

Beyond the subject matter, Wright also has another goal for working with Connexions, as opposed to just creating the material on a Merced server: "I want to create a culture at UC Merced that is an open source culture. It will be a better environment for students and professors to be using this site with lots of [non-Merced material]. Students will see that there is a huge community out there from which they can gain nourishment."

Baraniuk, the Connexions founder, says that any professor can put up material. To date, he says, there have been no problems with material of poor quality going up. But one of Connexions' projects is to create a new model for peer review, so that as the volume of material grows, users will be able to find guides to the best content. Already, the site features rankings of the most popular content and discussion areas.

In the months ahead, Connexions will be adding more ability for users to rate content. Baraniuk compares it to the tools used by readers to rate books. Combining those rating systems with social networking software popularized by Web sites like Friendster, Connexions also hopes to let users pick their own "lens" through which to pick material. For instance, Baraniuk says that one lens a user might develop is "modules used by the University of Illinois," so Illinois professors who use a module would indicate that, and a student or professor who viewed Illinois as a good seal of approval could know that.

This week, Connexions is also starting its first formal relationship with a scholarly association that wants to conduct its own peer review. At its annual meeting this week, the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration announced plans to encourage its 1,000 members to create modules for posting on Connexions, and to have small teams of council members review those modules and, where appropriate, indicate that they have the council's seal of approval.

"We have been looking for a vehicle to assemble what we call our knowledge base," says Theodore Creighton, executive director of the council and a professor at Sam Houston State University. "We feel our knowledge base is out there, but it wasn't assembled in one location, accessible to the world."

While Baraniuk welcomes the idea of scholarly associations conducting peer review, he stresses that it will not be the kind of peer review associated with books and journals. "This is self-organized, post review," he says. Groups or individuals are welcome to rate material, but that will happen after the material is available to use. In traditional peer review, "you can have three people hold up information getting out," Baraniuk says.

The idea of letting users suggest ideas extends beyond peer review. Baraniuk says that a group from the University of Texas at El Paso recently approached him about translating signal processing course materials into Spanish, and he said Yes immediately. The only idea he'd never consider would be charging for access to the materials. "The fundamental belief is that Connexions has to stay completely free and completely open," he says.

The project has been able to do that in part because of support from Rice, and also from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has become a key player in providing grants to colleges experimenting with open courseware of various types.

Baraniuk is now spending time evangelizing about the project, which he sees changing the economics of higher education for students and the ability of professors  to customize their courses, especially at community colleges.

Many of the materials professors are putting on Connexions could replace textbooks, he says. "At many community colleges, textbooks in some fields cost more than the credit hours. This is ridiculous," he says. Similarly, he says, many community colleges rely on adjunct faculty members to teach most courses, but don't give them money or time to create customized educational materials. "They get a textbook and a syllabus thrust on them."

Because Connexions operates completely openly, he says, faculty members can mix and match materials, so a community college instructor without a budget could design a program with that college's students in mind. Mixing materials from several textbooks or CD-ROMs would never be economically possible to such a professor, Baraniuk says. One of Connexion's next projects is to start to invite contributions of materials in the courses that are most popular at community colleges.

Alan Levine, an instructional technologist at the Maricopa Community Colleges, recently invited Baraniuk to speak to faculty members about Connexions. Levine says that some professors have difficulty understanding that "re-use is not a bad thing."

But Levine sees potential for Connexions at Maricopa and in community colleges generally. "The alternative future for textbook materials is very intriguing because a lot of our students won't buy textbooks," he says.

One of the things that struck Levine about Baraniuk's visit was that he heard the most enthusiasm from adjunct faculty members (a group that numbers 4,000 in the Maricopa district). "Adjuncts don't have the time to sit down and create content, but they love the idea of being able to borrow and modify content."

"What matters here," Levine says, "is that Connexions has both the content and the tools to create more content out of the content that's there."


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