By Jeffrey Selingo
Four years ago, Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical
and computer engineering at Rice University, called together some of the
brightest students from his Signals and Systems class. Even though Baraniuk
had won national teaching awards, he was not sure that his approach was
working with these undergraduates.
Baraniuk sent the group of mostly juniors to the blackboard
and asked them to explain the class to him. What I saw totally astounded
me, he recalls. They didn't put it together in the
way I wanted them to get it.
The students essentially repeated the class lectures word
for word, in the same order that Baraniuk had presented them. They failed
to link similar ideas that were presented at different times over the
course of the semester. Baraniuk knew that he had to do something different
to reach them.
At first, he considered writing a book. But there were already
dozens of books on signal processing, and by the time he published a text
it would be outdated. Plus a book simply presents information in the same
chapter-by-chapter fashion that he was trying to avoid with his students.
He was looking for a more dynamic publishing tool that would allow students
to better connect related concepts, work at their own pace, and easily
get background information on theories unfamiliar to them. His solution:
The Web, of course, was already being used extensively
at the time by college professors who were posting lectures, assignments,
and other classroom materials using expensive campus-wide publishing
from companies like Blackboard and WebCT, two leaders in the education-software
industry. Baraniuk, though, wanted to use the Web as more than just
bulletin board. His dream was to build a virtual community of professors
and students from around the world who would design and build an entire
course together by adding to each other's work, and then sharing
the product for free.
So began what is today called Connexions, and what could
become the model for engineering education, and perhaps even academic
fields as diverse as poetry and accounting. The project is envisioned
to work like this: Faculty members post teaching materials on a specific
topic area they are interested in. It could be a few pages long or dozens
of pages and include things like formulas or pictures. Other professors
in the same department or at another college see the information and add
their own research or links to key background materials. Almost instantaneously,
an up-to-date course is completed that can be shared by instructors worldwide
for free. Those who have used it already best describe it as Legos with
A great deal of what's happening with technology
in the classroom is taking a traditional book, lecture, or PowerPoint
presentation and putting it on the Web, says Sidney Burrus, dean
of the school of engineering at Rice. All you're doing is simulating
the classroom and it's not very interesting. With Connexions,
you have a repository of information that one can draw from and contribute
Already, the Connexions Web site is home to some 15 courses
that are being used at Rice, the University of Cambridge, the University
of IllinoisUrbana-Champaign, and Ohio State University. The first
three core courses in electrical and computer engineering at Rice exclusively
use Connexions, and within two years, Baraniuk hopes that all 15 core
courses in the department will employ the technology. At Illinois,
professors were thinking about designing a free, open-source electronic
textbook until they heard about what was happening at Rice and decided
instead to join its effort. Connexions has been used there for the
One reason that Douglas Jones, an electrical and computer
engineering professor at Illinois, favors Connexions is that it allows
him to quickly revise his signal processing course since it utilizes
equipment every three years. In the past, he taught the class from
a series of notes developed by him and his colleagues. We gave up trying
to find a book long ago, he says. Essentially, Connexions
is that book
For students, Connexions is much like an archive of notes
from every engineering class out there, providing the perfect review
for tests. That's how Jyoti Uppuluri used the technology as an undergraduate
at Rice. I could click on the links if I didn't understand
something or wanted to explore topics further, says Uppuluri,
who is now a graduate student in engineering at the university. Still,
often found herself printing out most of the materials to underline
important points and take her own notes. Eventually, users of Connexions
able to highlight text or make comments directly on the screen and
save those annotations, largely eliminating the need for a paper copy.
Although Connexions was designed by engineers for teaching
engineering, Baraniuk and others involved with the project believe
future will include contributions from nearly all academic disciplines.
For instance, it's already being used by Jones's wife, Kitty,
for teaching children's music. It could also bring together scholars
to compose poems collaboratively, for example, or professors to write
a case study for a business course. And that information will be accessed
by more than just students on a college campus. People who want to learn
about a specific subject will be able to focus their studies on what they
are interested in mastering rather than signing up for an entire course.
Jones says the boundaries of the technology are almost limitless. The
medium is capable of a lot more, he says; we just haven't
learned how to make use of it.
But as Connexions grows, so too
will the number of questions about the quality and ownership of the
material on it, not to mention how
way of publishing will be viewed by tenure committees accustomed to
judging professors partly on the quantity of books they have finished.
scholarly journals and books, the material that is posted to Connexions
is not vetted by a panel of reviewers or edited by experts before it's
published. Still, Baraniuk expects users will become their own reviewers,
a process he calls post-publication review. After all,
he says, users are the most invested in having the best material
out there since they'll be using it in the classroom.
The copyright issues are much more complicated. Under
the current copyright system, authors generally assume all rights to
their works automatically
and others seeking to republish or redistribute the material must first
have the author's permission. Connexions has endorsed a license from
Creative Commons, a nonprofit group at Stanford University dedicated to
making scholarly materials widely available to the public. Under the license,
authors' works can be copied and distributed provided their creators
are given credit. Even so, Christopher Kelty, an assistant professor of
anthropology at Rice, who is a legal adviser to the project, says, There's
a lot of misapprehension about intellectual property. As a result,
he adds, people are frightened about what they can and cannot
do with this technology.
For the most part, though, scientists seem less interested
in retaining all rights to their works than in seeing them widely distributed.
instance, Jones at Illinois, says that the notes he and his colleagues
developed for the signal processing course were widely shared with
schools over the past 15 years. If I write materials and someone
can change them or adapt them to their needs, everyone is better off.
Burrus, the engineering dean at Rice, agrees. Few professors
write books to make money or sell millions of copies. Rather, he says,
to have an impact, which also helps in securing tenure. But most academic
books collect dust on the sales rack. With Connexions, millions of
around the world will have access to the author's work, Burrus says.
What's more, professors can put together materials for Connexions
in weeks, rather than spending years on writing a book.
For now, Connexions remains a Rice University project
that is run by a team of seven full-time staff members, along with
several faculty members
and some 20 undergraduates. Last year, the university was awarded a
$1 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to further
develop the software needed, including easy-to-use editing tools, document
conversion technology, and an interface for author collaboration. In
long run, as Connexions expands its offerings and increases its partnerships
with other institutions, including foreign and elementary and secondary
schools, Baraniuk expects that it will be spun off from Rice into a
group. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the future of teaching,
Baraniuk says. It has so much potential to reach out to far broader
audiences than we ever can reach standing in front of a classroom.
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington,
He can be reached at email@example.com.