Rice Connexions program receives funding from Hewlett Foundation

November 20, 2002

HOUSTON, Nov. 20 -- The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to fund the continued development of Rice University's innovative "Connexions" education platform.

Connexions adapts the "open source" software concept to scholarly content, making it easy to publish course curricula online, where anyone can use it or modify it to meet their own specific needs.

In development since 1999, Connexions currently contains more than 1,000 educational "modules" that are used to teach several electrical engineering, computer science, physics, and mathematics courses. Materials have been contributed by faculty from Rice and other institutions.

"For anyone involved in teaching, technology -- particularly the Internet -- is fundamentally changing the way we present information to students," said C. Sidney Burrus, dean of Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering. "Rice's commitment to Connexions is indicative of the importance that the university places on developing innovative teaching tools."

Over the next five years, Connexions plans to expand its offerings and increase its partnerships with outside academic institutions. The Connexions project will provide a set of free software tools that will allow faculty to create online course materials and make improvements to the materials from anywhere in the world.

"Connexions uses the Internet to make educational content freely available, to empower diverse cultural communities to join in the development of knowledge, and to break down the barriers that exist between academic disciplines," said Richard Baraniuk, director of Connexions and professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice.

Baraniuk conceived the idea for Connexions in 1999 when he had trouble finding an adequate textbook for an electrical engineering course. Despite having taught the course two previous times, Baraniuk -- who has twice been recognized with teaching awards at Rice -- found that conventional textbooks didn't convey concepts that both underpinned the basic course material and connected it with a broader base of knowledge. He first considered writing his own textbook but realized it would be out of date by the time it was printed. Moreover, he didn't want to devote time to writing chapters that, while vital to the course, were outside his particular area of interest.

Baraniuk decided it would be a better idea to encourage faculty communities to collaborate in developing teaching materials because authors would only need to write about discrete topic areas that they were interested in. Taking this collaborative approach online would allow authors to build a shared "commons" of high-quality educational materials that could be recycled by instructors for courses worldwide. He envisions the commons as helping students see the connections among key concepts; offering different kinds of materials to engage students with different levels of preparation and learning styles; and ensuring that the material is continuously refined and updated in real time.

After three years, Connexions has been implemented as a prototype at Rice University, supporting one-quarter of the core undergraduate courses in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Further faculty contributions are limited only by the ability to feed new material into the system. The 1,000+ course "modules" in the Connexions database -- each equivalent to two or three pages in a traditional textbook -- cover material used in a range of engineering and science courses. New material is being developed in emerging areas such as nanotechnology and bioinformatics.

The funding from the Hewlett Foundation will contribute to the next phase of development for Connexions. The software tools needed include easy-to-use editing tools, document conversion tools, an interface for author collaboration, technology for performing peer-review of Connexions material, and a distributed repository system for the modules and courses.

Rice also hopes to develop tools to add multimedia content to Connexions, and it will work to attract additional partners, including other universities, grade schools and foreign institutions.

Rice University

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