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CONNECTING THE DOTS

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 But there were already dozens of books on signal processing, and by the time he published a text it would be outdated.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.

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 systems from companies like Blackboard and WebCT, two leaders in the education-software industry. Baraniuk, though, wanted to use the Web as more than just a 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 education materials.

“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 to.”

Already, the Connexions Web site is home to some 15 courses that are being used at Rice, the University of Cambridge, the University of Illinois–Urbana-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, engineering 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 past three semesters.

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 new 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 course 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, she often found herself printing out most of the materials to underline important points and take her own notes. Eventually, users of Connexions will be 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 its 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.”

WHOSE PROPERTY IS 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 the new way of publishing will be viewed by tenure committees accustomed to judging professors partly on the quantity of books they have finished. Unlike 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. For instance, Jones at Illinois, says that the notes he and his colleagues developed for the signal processing course were widely shared with other 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, scholars write to have an impact, which also helps in securing tenure. But most academic books collect dust on the sales rack. With Connexions, millions of people 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 the 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 nonprofit 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, D.C.
He can be reached at jselingo@asee.org.

 
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