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Open Source Connects Courseware at Rice University

As the Internet rapidly reshapes how scholarly information is disseminated at colleges and universities, an open-source, open-community initiative at Rice University in Houston may portend the future.

Called Connexions, it's an online environment that encourages the creation and sharing of content on virtually any topic in higher education, organized into modules that can easily be incorporated into a course or used for research or study on a particular topic. The eclectic mix of participating instructors from universities around the world includes universities within the United States, as well as China, Norway, Italy, and Vietnam.

A non-profit project, Connexions' goals include making high-quality educational content available online to all at no cost through the Internet. The project invites authors and educators worldwide to help create textbooks, courses, and learning materials from its global open-access repository.

Connexions was created in 1999 by Rice University Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Richard Baraniuk, who said he always imagined the program eventually reaching across universities, cultures, and languages around the world. By avoiding any barriers to entry and using open-source software and the universal markup language XML, an open standard, Connexions also reaches across common technical and licensing barriers.

The thousands of modules of content on Connexions can be accessed by anyone, within or outside academia. Content contributors to Connexions must step over a somewhat higher hurdle than users by registering and, unlike a non-academic site such as Wikipedia, agreeing to attach their names to their material. Baraniuk said Connexions is also in the process of introducing a method to allow peer reviews of some material, thus introducing a quality filter familiar to academia.

Instructors at Rice--or anywhere--can use Connexions as they choose; some have eliminated course textbook requirements completely and are using Connexions instead. Two required introductory courses in the electrical engineering department at Rice, Baraniuk said, now use Connexions for all course material; students no longer have to purchase a textbook. Others are using material at the site to augment course content.

Reflecting Baraniuk's engineering background, most of the content is still in technical disciplines. Under the science and technology heading, for example, there are more than 2,500 modules currently available and 117 courses. There are just 17 modules so far on business topics, and six courses.

One of his goals is to continue to get more contributors involved, Baraniuk said, both within academia and from outside.

He cited three key differences between Connexions content and that found on public contribution sites such as Wikipedia: no anonymous authors, multiple entries per topic, and a system that will allow content to be "filtered" by professional societies, editorial boards, and publishers. "If users trust those sources," Baraniuk said, "they can jump to content that has been peer-reviewed."

Using a Lego-like approach, content in Connexions is arranged in building blocks called modules. Like folders, modules contain the text, images, and Connexions files about a specific topic; say a short biography of Galileo or a brief history of Galileo and the pendulum, complete with scholarly references. Authors working in Connexions are encouraged to create modules that can stand alone, if necessary.

Instructors can incorporate the modules into their own courses as they see fit and can modify them if they choose. Material on Connexions is covered under a Creative Commons license, which generally allows sharing and adaptation of content as long as author attribution is included.

To students, a module can appear simply as a Web page that contains information on a specific topic. The course outline can direct students to other modules in Connexions, or students can branch off in their own directions on the site.

A second tier of content in Connexions is an actual course, made up of a set of modules and called a collection. For example, the modules relating to Galileo are part of an entire course, created by Rice University History Professor Albert Van Helden, called "Galileo Project."

An example of how the program can be used to integrate various media in ways that are impossible with textbooks can be found in an introductory music appreciation course called "Sound Reasoning," by Rice University Associate Professor Anthony Brandt. The text of the course, divided into easy to digest modules, describes music theory, sound, and ideas; interspersed at appropriate points are short (or sometimes longer) musical examples to help explain a point. A Macromedia Flash plugin from Adobe is required to listen, but that is available over the Internet at no charge. The overall experience is that of moving at one's own pace through a musicology course, complete with a resident expert and plenty of quality audio examples.

Although other universities are experimenting with making course content available at no charge--such as MIT's Open Courseware project, which makes the syllabi and some course notes of many MIT courses available online for free in PDF format--Baraniuk said he sees Connexions as "the main exemplar of a truly open, intra-institutional kind of effort." Content added to Connexions can be converted into XML from virtually any format, including common ones used by professors, such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint; an Adobe PDF file converter is in development. "Connexions is based on Web technologies," Baraniuk said. "Anything you can do on the Web, you can do in Connexions."

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