Rice's Connexions wins $1.7 million from Hewlett Foundation

November 06, 2006

HOUSTON, Nov. 6, 2006 -- Rice University's revolutionary, open-source publishing platform Connexions today received a third-phase $1.7 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that will allow Connexions to become more self-sustaining through new revenue-generating initiatives.

"The Hewlett Foundation has generously supported Connexions from its infancy, and we're proud of their commitment to support us while we grow and learn to make our way in the world," said Connexions founder Richard Baraniuk, the Victor C. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice.

Founded in 1999, the nonprofit Connexions is one of the Web's first open educational resources. Connexions adapts open-source concepts to educational publishing, allowing anyone anywhere in the world to read, write, use and modify materials for free. The number of people using Connexions has grown by almost 70 percent during the past year, and the site today is attracting around 500,000 visitors each month.

"We're entering the most ambitious phase of our development," Baraniuk said. "We're looking at three potential revenue streams that may allow us to become self-supporting, and we're committed to developing those without betraying our core mission to keep all of our material available for free."

Connexions' initial revenue streams will come from the sale of books. In one case, Connexions plans to found a University Press Consortium that allows member presses to offer print-on-demand publication of money-losing monographs that are academically important but which simply cost too much to publish. The model builds upon Rice's announcement in July that it would use Connexions to revive its own university press, which was shuttered in 1996. The reopened Rice University Press published its first title, "Art History and Its Publications in the Electronic Age," early this month (see http://cnx.org/content/col10376/1.1).

In the University Press Consortium, members will be able to clear backlogged titles and deliver high-quality books to readers, thanks to Connexions' agreement with print-on-demand vendor QOOP Inc. Also announced in July, the print deal is already allowing Connexions offer a handful of titles, including a $30 hardbound, 300-page engineering text that would typically cost about $150 from a traditional press.

Under this model, readers can access all books online for free, and they will pay only if they want a printed book, which they'll order online and for home delivery. Connexions and the press that owns the title will make only a few cents per book, but with minimal overhead and production costs, they can still expect to break even or make a small profit.

Connexions also plans to develop a catalog of the 10 most-popular community college textbooks, which also will be free for online viewing and cost less than $30 when purchased as hardbound books.

"According to the latest federal data, the cost of college textbooks has nearly tripled over the past 20 years, outpacing inflation by about 2-to-1," Baraniuk said. "The average community college student today spends almost as much on books as on tuition. Our goal is to dramatically affect the economics of textbooks by providing high-utility courses in Connexions that can be customized by instructors and printed affordably by students."

Connexions' final revenue-generating plan involves licensing its platform to companies for in-house corporate training. This model will allow companies to slash costs for updating printed materials, particularly for large product lines, and Connexions' robust translation features will allow companies to easily convert courses and texts into other languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Italian.

The latest round of Hewlett Foundation funding follows two earlier grants totaling $2.25 million that helped fund the development of Connexions' user software and backend platform.
Connexions is part of a broader effort by the Hewlett Foundation to bring educational materials to the Internet in innovative ways. In the past four years, the foundation has disbursed more than $60 million in grants to support programs worldwide that advance the promise of open educational resources--or OER, as it is known to educators.

To explore Connexions' courses and learn how to post lessons, create courses and teach students, visit http://cnx.org.

Jack Fischer
Hewlett Foundation

Rice University

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