Interview with Connexions Founder Richard Baraniuk

Today we have Richard Barniuk with us today. Richard is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Rice University and has been involved in Connexions since day one. He is with us today to talk about education and technology.

1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved with Connexions.

I’ve been an electrical engineering professor at rice university since 1993. In 1999, frustrated by the fact that there was no appropriate textbook for my class, I considered writing my own. But on careful reflection, i realized that
the educational publishing system was broken and that writing a new book and publishing it through this system would not make a meaningful impact. At the same point in time i was starting to learn about and use open source software (linux) and was marveling at its highly efficient community development model and its high quality output. And so it was not much of a leap to conceive of building an open source textbook. Connexions was born from this frustration and opportunity and took shape rapidly, since i was aided immediately by a number of faculty and students who all shared the same frustrations and saw the same opportunities.

2. What audience were you targeting when you launched Connexions? And how was the reality different from the expectations?

Initially we focused on college level textbooks, since that’s the world that most of the founding team members lived in. But we realized from the outset that the Connexions open-source concept extended into K-12 education, information and industrial learning settings. and today some of our most popular content is actually in the K-12 space.

The amazing thing to me is that Connexions today in 2010 holds very true to the original vision we had back in 1999. the goal of community-generated learning materials that are available for free to anyone, anywhere, at any time has only become more relevant to the education world.

3. What are the technological and administrative challenges facing your OpenCourseWare program?

The main technological challenge has been keeping up with our user base, which has grown rapidly to nearly 2 million unique users per month. Fortunately we have a solid technology plan in place that will help us scale up to make Connexions faster and easier to use over the next year or so.

4. What should we expect to see from Connexions in the coming years?

Lots! we’ll have a lot more open textbooks for both college and K-12 students, a peer review system to ensure high quality that involves a number of school systems and professional societies, and collaborations with commercial learning companies and publishers. i am also working to build a platform that makes an e-textbook more responsive to the background and needs of the person who is working with it. today’s textbooks offer only “off the rack” learning, and the future is in customized, personalized learning.

5. Finally, what do you think of the advent of online education? Is it going to replace more traditional means of education or merely augment existing in-person learning?

I view open, online education tools like Connexions as enhancing the quality of education no matter what situation they’re used in, whether it’s solitary e-learning, collaborative e-learning, or in-person learning.

Thanks for talking to us Richard. Again, you can find Connexions here. For more information about education and technology, please see Udemy’s main page here.