Rice's Connexions project wins $1.25M from Hewlett Foundation


Open-source Courseware Platform Continues Grassroots Expansion

HOUSTON, Aug. 23, 2004 -- Rice University's innovative, open-source e-publishing and courseware platform, Connexions, is poised to continue its rapid, grassroots expansion with today's infusion of $1.25 million in additional grant funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Created five years ago, Connexions has been called an e-publishing system, a content management platform, an interactive e-learning project, an online research repository and an open-source, open-access courseware platform. Connexions adapts the open-source software concept to scholarly academic content, allowing anyone to freely publish course materials in a single place online -- the "Content Commons" -- where all lessons can be used, modified or combined with others to meet each instructor's specific needs.

The latest round of Hewlett Foundation funding -- the foundation gave $1 million to Connexions in November 2002 -- will support a second phase of development of both the Connexions platform and training materials for new users.

"The Connexions platform public rollout in February provided a robust, fully supported platform for promoting knowledge sharing around the world for free, without limiting use based on copyright restrictions or who can contribute or extend the knowledge," said Geneva Henry, executive director of the Connexions Project. "The new grant from the Hewlett Foundation will allow us to focus on improving usability and increasing the amount of knowledge that's available through Connexions."

Connexions already contains more than 2,100 educational "modules," each equivalent to a two- to three-page lesson from a textbook.

"The best part about writing for Connexions is that you can write an individual module in a few hours or a weekend and publish it immediately," said Douglas L. Jones, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Connexions' 2003 Author of the Year. "It really lowers the barriers to getting something out and is by far the closest thing to instant gratification when it comes to publishing."

Jones has written about 40 modules himself and has collaborated with teams that wrote about 30 others.

"A textbook is an all-or-nothing thing that takes a massive, multiyear commitment and effort that is, frankly, exhausting," Jones said. "In Connexions, you can do it bit by bit and feel that each step makes an immediate contribution and is not wasted, even if the whole project is never completed. Also, you can edit, correct errors and improve things as you go, whereas with a book you're stuck with any mistakes or limitations for years."

Rice's Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, conceived the idea for Connexions when he had trouble finding an adequate textbook for an electrical engineering course. He considered writing his own book, but he realized it would be out of date by the time it was printed. Instead, he decided to encourage his colleagues to collaborate in developing Internet-based texts. The collaborative approach would allow the authors to build a shared "commons" of high-quality educational material that could be recycled by instructors for courses worldwide.

Jones heard about Connexions from Baraniuk and was immediately onboard; he'd already been thinking about using the Web to develop an interactive textbook. Shortly after Jones started writing for Connexions, he went on sabbatical at the University of California at Berkeley. Over lunch one day he was describing Connexions to his wife, Kitty Schmidt-Jones, a musician and music instructor who was herself taking a break from her K-12 teaching.

"I was saying I was ready to do something new and different, but something that wouldn't interfere with the various things I already had going at home," Schmidt-Jones recalled. "Doug was the one that first said, 'Hey, Connexions is being designed by professors for professors, but that doesn't mean that other teachers couldn't use it too.' He had just been telling me very specifically why he was so excited about it, so as soon as he said that, I could see that many of the things he had been talking about also applied to K-12 teaching, so I got very excited about the idea pretty quickly."

Schmidt-Jones has written about 80 modules for Connexions. She uses some of the modules in her own teaching, but she said one of the most gratifying parts of her experience with Connexions has been the feedback she's gotten from others. She's received e-mail from people in the rural United States, Morocco, Uruguay and Uganda.

"Some people catch mistakes, which I really appreciate, since it's so easy to fix them," Schmidt-Jones said. "Some people have questions, and that also helps me realize what needs to be added or refined. By far, most of the e-mails are along the lines of 'Thank you so much for making this available. This is just what I needed' or 'Can I really use it to do such-and-such?'"

Schmidt-Jones said there are several reasons that Connexions is a powerful tool for teaching, particularly at the K-12 level. One is that all the material in the Content Commons is written under an open license that gives each individual teacher the freedom to use or modify the materials to suit his or her own needs. Another reason is the possibility for educators -- and even students and parents --to share ideas and lesson plans or to set up cooperative projects, even if the schools are miles apart or in different countries.

"I also believe that the heavily hyperlinked modules and texts in Connexions are ideally suited to answering questions as they arise, which is ideal for children because the child who likes to read straight through a textbook is a rare thing," Schmidt-Jones said. "A child looking up a favorite jazz composer might find questions arising -- about music history, syncopation, musical instruments or even American history -- as she reads. How many children are going to flip through the book or the glossary or the index -- or pick up a different book -- to answer their questions?

"With Connexions links between modules, they have a way to find the answers as soon as they think of the questions," she said. "And the fact that some of the links can be movies, video demonstrations or sound clips is also a plus in appealing to younger students."

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