IEEE Fellow Develops a Platform to Customize Textbooks

Richard Baraniuk founded OpenStax, one of the first online education programs

14 September 2016

As an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University, in Houston, IEEE Fellow Richard Baraniuk became frustrated with the textbooks he was using in the classroom. They were a one-size-fits-all teaching tool, and not all instructors teach a subject the same way. That’s when he came up with the idea of digitally customizing textbooks to tailor them for each instructor.

Today, millions of books have been downloaded through Baraniuk’s nonprofit OpenStax, which got its start in 1999. They cover biology, economics, physics, psychology, statistics, and other subjects—providing students across the globe with free access to course materials. The platform has enabled college instructors to collaborate from scratch on writing textbooks and other materials.

Those who download the books can customize them further by, for example, rearranging the chapters, deleting sections, and adding text and links to additional resources.

OpenStax also publishes its own peer-reviewed introductory college and advanced-placement textbooks. And this year it introduced the Concept Coach tool, which provides interactive practice problems to help students understand what they’re studying and a dashboard to help them track their progress.

Last year, Baraniuk received the IEEE James H. Mulligan Jr. Education Medal, which recognizes leadership in engineering education.

A NONPROFIT VENTURE

Baraniuk says he was at the right place at the right time for his idea to take off. The World Wide Web was becoming mainstream in the late 1990s, and the software he needed was beginning to take shape.

The original platform, Connexions—now OpenStax CNX—is an open educational resource platform that allows anyone to author content.

Most contributors are college instructors. OpenStax CNX is similar to Wikipedia. People can add material on a topic and edit one another’s contributions. The content is then available as an e-book for free download or to purchase from OpenStax as a print copy for a fraction of the cost of a hard-copy textbook.

At first glance, Baraniuk says, the textbooks on OpenStax might look like any other, but search for a Physics 101 textbook and you’ll find nearly 200 versions, each customized to a particular course or institution. Professors and students have learned about the platform mostly through word of mouth, he says. OpenStax also promotes CNX to universities around the world by displaying it at education conferences and making presentations to deans.

Until 2012, most of the materials were for more advanced courses. That year, faculty members from community colleges began to ask OpenStax for introductory textbooks. That’s when Baraniuk shifted gears to produce books for more kinds of learners—including pre­university students studying for college-placement exams and those who want to learn on their own. And instead of depending on volunteers to write the textbooks, Baraniuk hired experts. To pay for them and other expenses, Baraniuk obtained philanthropic investments from a number of sources including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, raising more than US $20 million.

OpenStax has published 22 of these textbooks to date. Some 200 people work on each book. The books, in use at nearly 2,000 schools including many community colleges as well as Princeton and Stanford, are also customizable once they’re downloaded.

startup mind-set

Although OpenStax is a nonprofit, Baraniuk says it operates much like a startup business: “We seek out venture philanthropy, instead of venture capital. The return on investment for funders is not in profits but in student savings.”

More than 700,000 students have downloaded the in-house textbooks, resulting in a total savings for them, Baraniuk calculates, of about $70 million.

OpenStax employs 60 people. Baraniuk, the director, is working on making the business self-sustaining. One way is by building partnerships with companies that offer complementary services such as computer-based homework or tutoring programs. When students sign up for those services, a percentage of the company’s revenue flows back to OpenStax.

Concept Coach, with its practice problems is, Baraniuk says, “an extremely exciting next step. The more data we can acquire on how students are learning, the more we can improve student learning.”

MOVING, AT LAST

“The education system we’re innovating in has not changed in 500 years,” Baraniuk says, adding that the system undoubtedly will move forward now that technology is making its way into classrooms. He says he’s ready for the change.

“I marvel at the fact that we were one of the first online education programs,” he adds, “and we’re one of the few still standing.”

This article is part of a series introduced this year featuring IEEE members who have launched their own ventures.

This article appears in the September 2016 print issue as “Tailor-Made Textbooks.”

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