Rice University's Connexions project pioneers open-source academic publishing


Web site lets any teacher create, share course materials for free

Richard Baraniuk

HOUSTON, Feb. 19, 2004 --Composer Anthony K. Brandt is no computer guru, but thanks to Rice University's Connexions Project, he's using the Internet to fulfill a longtime dream of interweaving music and text to form a truly interactive music appreciation course.

Brandt, an assistant professor of composition in Rice's Shepherd School of Music, is one of a growing number of educators who've begun to explore how to use Connexions to custom-build just the course that they want and offer it to the world.

Four years in development, Connexions officially launches its portal (http://cnx.rice.edu) this week. Unlike MIT's OpenCourseWare and other initiatives by universities to make their own course material freely available online, Connexions offers a revolutionary approach; a single place online where any educator in the world can both post and use knowledge for free.

Connexions adapts the open-source software concept to scholarly content. People freely publish course curricula in Connexions' "Content Commons," where all lessons can be used, modified or combined with others to meet each instructor's specific needs. The upshot is that university professors, community college instructors, grade school teachers, professional development leaders, home educators, and others can use, modify and re-use one another's course materials.

"Connexions is a natural fit for the K12 classroom because kids love to use computers," said Brandt. "I've already spoken with a high school teacher here in Houston who's interested in using 'Sound Reasoning,' and I've also corresponded with a K12 music teacher and homeschooler in Illinois who has created a few of her own Connexions courses for elementary-age students."

At the university level, Connexions courses are already used to teach engineering, computer science, physics and mathematics classes at Rice, the University of Illinois, Ohio State University, Cambridge University and other schools.

"One of the significant advantages of Connexions is that by its very design, it encourages people to collaborate in building a base of knowledge within a particular domain that can be constantly updated and revised," said Jeff Wright, Dean of the School of Engineering at UC Merced; the 10th campus of the University of California system, scheduled to open in the fall of 2005. "Connexions offers just the kind of openness and flexibility that our faculty will embrace as we build the first major research university in the United States in the 21st Century."

Connexions' authors use an "open content" license developed by Creative Commons (http://www.creativecommons.org/) that allows unlimited modification and distribution, provided each author receives attribution for their work.

"Connexions grew from the idea that the Web offered a perfect means of making scholarly knowledge freely available to anyone," said Connexions Director Richard Baraniuk, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice, who started the project in order to reach out to students in his digital signal processing class.

Supported by Rice and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Connexions already contains more than 1,600 educational "modules," each equivalent to a two- to three-page lesson from a textbook. Developed using prototype software over the past five years, most of these modules deal with highly technical subjects related to the mathematics and physics of signal processing. Modules are used by instructors to supplement or replace textbooks. But in addition to typical textbook content, modules can also include interactive simulations and multimedia that enhance learning.

With the availability of new, do-it-yourself publishing tools, Connexions is attracting new users like Brandt, who are pioneering content beyond engineering in disciplines like music and biology. Brandt's course, "Sound Reasoning" (http://cnx.rice.edu/featuredcontent), is aimed at learners, especially those without formal music training. He hopes the course will bridge the divide between modern and classical music by teaching people to fully appreciate the form and structure of all music.

The prototype of the course consists of seven modules, an introduction followed by three opening lessons that are accompanied by corresponding listening galleries. Each module contains links to several music files, which load and play within the page.

"At first, I thought a CD-ROM might be the best medium," said Brandt. "However, when I learned about Connexions, I realized that its flexibility, potential to grow, and universal reach made it ideal."

Brandt said Connexions offers the only technology he's yet found that allows musical examples to be interpolated into the text, where readers can click on them and immediately hear the concepts in action.

"That immediacy is very powerful, "Brandt said. ''Sound Reasoning' is all about developing the listener's confidence and self-reliance. Being able to describe a concept and then have the listener test it with their own ears is the strongest way to teach music appreciation."

To explore the Content Commons and find out how to post lessons, create courses and teach students using Connexions, visit http://cnx.rice.edu.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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