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OpenStax receives funding for research

By Miles Kruppa     9/11/14 10:14am

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Richard Baraniuk founded Connexions in 1999 as a platform for a customizable textbook for his Signals and Systems class at Rice.

What began as a class-specific project is now OpenStax CNX, a Rice University affiliated open-source textbook and education non-profit that recently received $9.5 million in funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to publish another 10 college textbooks under its OpenStax College division.

OpenStax College currently maintains college textbooks in the subjects of physics, sociology, biology, anatomy and physiology, statistics and economics.

Managing Director Daniel Williamson said the grant will not only allow for an expansion of its series of free, open-source college textbook, but will also for even further research into digital learning.

“We’re really creating textbooks that learn with you and adapt to you based on your previous interactions with those textbooks,” Williamson said. “They’re taking that personalization concept and not making it just a manual process, where you go in and tweak the content manually, but you allow the system to use technologies like those employed in Google, Amazon and Netflix to customize it really toward the individual student and their personal learning style.”

According to Williamson, Connexions transformed three years ago into OpenStax CNX in order to expand its open-source services and usership.

Williamson said the rebranding that resulted in OpenStax CNX only enhanced Baraniuk’s original vision for modular education and textbooks.

“The [rebranding] is what [Baraniuk] in the very beginning was striving for,” Williamson said. “He wanted these textbooks that were perfect for each student and perfect for each individual faculty member and allowed the faculty the opportunity to go in and customize the textbook rather than just taking a book off the shelf and using just that content.”

Williamson said one of the primary goals of OpenStax College is to ensure higher education becomes affordable to more students.

“The response is, ‘Oh wow, my students can actually afford to purchase groceries and afford their textbooks,’ because that sounds like hyperbole, right?” Williamson said. “I got a call from a person at Middlesex Community College and literally what she said to me was, ‘Thank you so much. Because of OpenStax College I can feel good about assigning a textbook and knowing that my students don’t have to choose between buying their textbook and buying their groceries.’”

Rice Ecology and Evolutionary Biology lecturer Adrienne Correa has adopted a version of OpenStax College’s ‘Biology’ textbook for her class EBIO 124, Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

According to Corrrea, the textbook’s affordability convinced her to adopt a modified version including only sections on evolution and ecology that she will use in addition to popular science articles the students in her class must purchase.

“I liked it because I’m asking students to pay for readings that are targeted toward the general public, but if they are feeling deficient in some area or they just want another way of reading about something they can just consult this textbook source for free,” Correa said.

915 institutions of higher education currently use OpenStax College textbooks.

According to Williamson OpenStax College has played an important role in the digital education revolution.

“We’re at a very interesting inflection point in education broadly,” Williamson said. “About two years ago, when edX and Coursera came online, the academy woke up and said ‘We have a new wave of sophisticated educational concepts,’ and the first step of that is the transition to the digital realm, putting our courses online and giving students options about how they can actually consume the content.”

Correa said OpenStax College textbooks, such as the Biology book she adapted for her course, contain appropriate breadth and have the potential to include depthy content and examples.

“At this point, the offerings from [OpenStax College] cover the appropriate topics and I think they have some nice examples,” Correa said. “It’s kind of nice in an internet format that there is the potential that students could have a lot of different examples illustrating a particular point. It is also great that I can, as the instructor, choose to have all examples available to students or pick through and remove some of them if I think it’s too much.”

OpenStax CNX is also currently testing a beta version of OpenStax Tutor, a “study resource, homework and test delivery system that uses powerful, advanced techniques to improve student learning and instructor understanding,” according to its website.

According to Williamson, OpenStax Tutor represents a movement toward increasingly student-specific learning outcomes and types of feedback.

“It’s no longer just in-class and just lecture, homework [and] final exam,” Williamson said. “I think, as we continue that transition, we’re looking at how we can use the data that’s being gathered during these courses — that is not just a binary system where you either got the problem right or wrong — [and] we can start to provide more individualized feedback on how you’re actually performing with regards to specific concepts.”

Computer Science and Cognitive Science double major Terry Lin used OpenStax Tutor in ELEC 220, Fundamentals of Computer Engineering. He said the program was effective as an educational tool because of its rigor and flexibility.

“It was definitely a good way to assess people,” Lin, a McMurtry College junior, said. “The good part of it was that you could upload pictures as answers, and it also required you to show your work and demonstrate your understanding of the subject.”

According to Lin, who said he is personally interested in machine learning research, the type of research OpenStax CNX is performing can be useful to college students.

“It could definitely help,” Lin said. “Having machine learning, or having the program learn each student’s ability and assess it and tailor questions to it, can definitely be something that happens in the future. The problem with that is that someone is required to create the original questions and assessments that the machine will expand on.”

The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 20 Million Minds Foundation, Maxfield Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Rice University have provided funding to OpenStax.

OpenStax also receives revenue through various partnerships with educational companies that provide add-on services to the free textbooks, thereby allowing OpenStax to be sustainable without funding.

However, Williamson said OpenStax will look to remain non-profit, even as it moves forward and looks to expand its line of offerings.

“We’re not as focused on building a business around it,” Williamson said. “We’re more focused on making sure in these pilots that we’re super deliberate about the design and implementation and the research to prove that this type of technology is actually effective at driving learning gains. Our goal is to improve students’ return on effort that they’re putting into their education. Right now, a lot of the for-profits that are doing things like this are limited by their for-profit status and the venture capital they have accumulated and have to show profits super quickly, and that means masking some of the potentially not efficacious practices they have been using.”

OpenStax began as a venture started by a Rice professor and has maintained close ties to the university since. Williamson said OpenStax remains loyal to its roots at Rice and aims to support Rice research and learning moving forward.

“Our number one commitment is advancing education and advancing the research that Rice is doing,” Williamson said. “I think if we work together in a very symbiotic nature, where we have a product focus at OpenStax but [are] tied so closely to Rice in its research arm that we feed off each other. It’s like they’re the R&D sector where they’re doing all this big R research, and we’re the group that can take that seamlessly and transition it into new products that help further transition education into this digital age.”

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