Richard G. Baraniuk: Offering Free Textbooks on the Lego Plan
Richard G. Baraniuk
Credit: Peter Hoey
The Daring Dozen Q&A
How do you use the Web in your work?
My site, Connexions, is using the Web to drag the textbook into the twenty-first century, remaking it from a static, stodgy, expensive paper book into a dynamic, up-to-date, community-based, free resource.
Other Web sites that I find most useful include:
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
I'm inspired by the vibrant music world, which provides half the inspiration for the Connexions commons, where anyone can "create, rip, mix, and burn" educational ideas. (I played in rock bands throughout school and was a DJ at the Rice University radio station.) And the open-source-software community, who provides the other half of the inspiration of Connexions, by demonstrating that large projects can be developed and managed by open communities. Also, a very influential article: "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," by Eric Raymond.
Who are your role models?
- John Seely Brown (Renaissance man)
- Larry Lessig (Renaissance lawyer)
- Ken Dryden (Renaissance goalie)
- Sidney Burrus (Renaissance dean)
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Choose your role models carefully. : )
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
Knowledge should be free and open to use and reuse. Others: Transparency, the nonlinearity of connections among ideas, the power of community.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
Keep a positive, fun outlook.
More to Explore:
Richard Baraniuk remembers the frustration that spawned Connexions, a revolutionary online center for free texts. The Rice University professor had grown increasingly dissatisfied while teaching a junior-level electrical engineering course for five straight years.
"Students just weren't being served by standard textbooks," Baraniuk recalls. "They were very expensive; they were out of date." While converting his department's computers to the Linux operating system, he adds, he was struck by the notion that "it was developed by a worldwide community of people who keep it up to date and interconnected with the world. So I realized, 'Well, why can't we do the same thing with educational materials?'"
His answer was Connexions, which Rice introduced in 1999, to provide what is described as "an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web." Its Content Commons holds educational materials for everyone from K-12 students to professionals on subjects from art appreciation to Galileo's inventions to binomial distribution. It packages information in small, self-contained pieces called modules, which users can assemble into larger courses or collections.
"It's basically the Lego-brick analogy," Baraniuk explains. "You can connect them in different ways to ensure relevance." As of March, Connexions boasted roughly 4,000 modules in about 200 collections, and the inventory grows constantly.
Most of the service's authors are university faculty in the United States and abroad, though anyone can contribute to the repository. Authors' names appear with their work; attribution is required whenever the free material is used or reused. That practice provides one level of quality assurance unknown to Wikipedia users.
Another perk is peer review. Baraniuk says some authors first submit contributions to their respective professional organizations, which send links to reviewers and then post vetted materials along with an endorsement. "Think of it as a quality layer on top of the Internet," says Baraniuk, who notes it would be impossible for Connexions's fifteen-member staff "to evaluate what's good or not in potentially all areas of common knowledge."
Does free publishing undermine textbook authors, especially academics trying to make a case for tenure? Baraniuk says no. "They're writing books to make impact, to touch people, to help people learn," he says. Open resource systems such as Connexions, meanwhile, "offer a much broader distribution of ideas." Textbooks don't generate much money for authors, he contends, nor do they provide as much potential impact or exposure as the Web. "People's reputations can be built on this," he says, adding that his center can produce detailed statistics about any material's use.
For instance, Catherine Schmidt-Jones's music and music-theory modules, designed for K-12 students, average 600,000 visits a month. The music teacher in Champaign, Illinois, says she hears from parents trying to answer their kids' questions or, recently, from a teacher in Uganda. Schmidt-Jones says she didn't expect such a strong reaction to her work, and now she's thinking about seeking grants and is considering publishing a hard-copy version of the modules. Last summer, Connexions contracted with on-demand publisher Qoop that could keep prices low but provide small royalties.
Anne Margulies, head of OpenCourseWare, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls Baraniuk "a visionary in the open resources field" who maintains "a very compelling program that hopefully will produce not only a lot of open content but also collaborative communities." She adds that Connexions and OpenCourseWare -- which publishes MIT's entire curriculum of 1,600 courses -- "share a real passion for knowledge as a public good."
That sentiment appeals to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has provided support for Connexions since 2002. "What intrigues me is that this platform and this site can serve many audiences," foundation program officer Catherine Casserly says. "It's a new model of sharing."
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