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Richard Baraniuk on open-source learning

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I'm Rich Baraniuk. And what I'd like to talk a little bit about today are some ideas that I think have just tremendous resonance with all the things that have been talked about the last two days. In fact, so many different points of resonance that it's going to be difficult to bring them all up, but I'll try to do my best.

Does anybody remember these?


OK, so these are LP records and they've been replaced, right? They've been swept away over the last two decades by these types of world-flattening digitization technologies, right? And I think it was best witnessed when Thomas was playing the music as we came in the room today. What's happened in the music world is there's a culture or an ecosystem that's been created that, if you take some words from Apple, the catchphrase that we create, rip, mix and burn. What I mean by that is that anyone in the world is free and allowed to create new music and musical ideas. Anyone in the world is allowed to rip or copy musical ideas, use them in innovative ways. Anyone is allowed to mix them in different types of ways, draw connections between musical ideas and people can burn them or create final products and continue the circle. And what that's done is it's created, like I said, a vibrant community that's very inclusive with people continually working to connect musical ideas, innovate them and keep things constantly up to date. Today's hit single is not last year's hit single.

But, I'm not here to talk about music today. I'm here to talk about books. In particular, textbooks and the kind of educational materials that we use every day in school. Has anyone here ever been to school?


OK, does anybody realize there's a crisis in our schools, around the world? OK, I'm not going to spend too much time on that, but what I want to talk about is some of the disconnects that appear when an author publishes a book that in fact, the publishing process -- just because of the fact that it's complicated, it's heavy, books are expensive -- creates a sort of a wall between authors of books and the ultimate users of books, be they teachers, students or just general readers. And this is even more true if you happen to speak a language other than one of the world's major languages, and especially English. And I'm going to call these people below the barrier Shut-outs, because they're really shut out of the process of being able to share their knowledge with the world. And so what I want to talk about today is trying to take these ideas that we've seen in the musical culture and try to bring these towards reinventing the way we think about writing books, using them and teaching from them. So, that's what I'd like to talk about and really, how do we get from where we are now to where we need to go?

So, the first thing I'd like you to do is a little thought experiment. So, imagine taking all the world's books. OK, everybody imagine books and imagine just tearing out the pages. So, liberating these pages and imagine digitizing them and then storing them in a vast, interconnected, global repository. Think of it as a massive iTunes for book type content. And then take that material and imagine making it all open, so that people can modify it, play with it, improve it. Imagine making it free, so that anyone in the world can have access to all of this knowledge, and imagine using information technology so that you can update this content, improve it, play with it, on a timescale that's more on the order of seconds instead of years. Instead of editions coming out every two years, of a book, imagine it coming out every 25 seconds.

So, imagine we could do that and imagine we could put people into this. So that we could truly build an ecosystem with not just authors, but all the people who could be or want to be authors in all the different languages of the world, and I think if you could do this, it would be called, well, I'm just going to refer to it as a knowledge ecosystem. So, really, this is the dream and in a sense what you can think of it is we are trying to enable anyone in the world, I mean anyone in the world, to be their own educational DJ, creating educational materials, sharing them with the world, constantly innovating on them. So, this is the dream.

In fact, this dream is actually being realized. Over the last six-and-a-half years, we've been working really hard at Rice University on a project called Connexions, and so what I'd like to do for the rest of the talk is just tell you a little bit about what people are doing with Connexions, which you can kind of think of as the counterpoint to Nicholas Negroponte's talk yesterday, where they're working on the hardware of bringing education to the world. We're working on the open-source tools and the content. So, that's sort of to put it in perspective here.

So, create. So what are some of the people that are using these kind of tools? Well, the first thing is there's a community of engineering professors, from Cambridge to Kyoto, who are developing engineering content in electrical engineering to develop what you can think of as a massive, super textbook that covers the entire area of electrical engineering -- and not only that, it can be customized for use in each of their own individual institutions. If people like Kitty Jones -- right, a shut-out -- a private music teacher and mom from Champagne, Illinois, who wanted to share her fantastic music content with the world, on how to teach kids how to play music. Her material is now used over 600,000 times per month. Tremendous, tremendous use. In fact, a lot of this use coming from Unites States, K-through-12 schools because anyone who's involved in a school scale back, the first thing that's cut is the music curriculum and so this is just indicating the tremendous thirst for this kind of open, free content. A lot of teachers are using this stuff. OK, what about ripping?

What about copying, reusing, right? A team of volunteers at the University of Texas El Paso, graduate students translating this engineering super textbook ideas and within about a week, having this be some of our most popular material in widespread use all over Latin America and in particular in Mexico, because of the open extensible nature of this. People, volunteers and even companies that are translating material into Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese and Thai, to spread the knowledge even further.

OK, what about people who are mixing? What does "mixing" mean? "Mixing" means building customized courses, means building customized books. Companies like National Instruments, who are embedding very powerful, interactive simulations into the materials, so that we can go way beyond our regular kind of textbook to an experience that all the teaching materials are things you can actually interact with and play around with and actually learn as you do.

We've been working with Teachers Without Borders who are very interested in mixing our materials. They're going to be using Connexions as their platform to develop and deliver teaching materials for teaching teachers how to teach in 84 countries that are around the world. TWB is currently in Iraq training 20,000 teachers supported by USAID and to them, this idea of being able to remix and customize to the local context is extraordinarily important, because just providing free content to people has actually been likened by people in the developing world to a kind of cultural imperialism, that if you don't empower people with the ability to re-contextualize the material, translate it into their own language and take ownership of it, it's not good. OK, other organizations we've been working with, UC Merced, people know about UC Merced. It's a new university in California, in the Central Valley, working very closely with community colleges. They're actually developing a lot of their science and engineering curriculum to spread widely around the world in our system and they're also trying to develop all of their software tools completely open-source. We've been working with AMD, which has a project called 50 by '15, which is trying to bring Internet connectivity to 50 percent of the world's population by 2015. We're going to be providing content to them in a whole range of different languages. And we've also been working with a number of other organizations. In particular, a bunch of the projects that are funded by Hewlett Foundation, who have taken a real leadership role in this area of open content.

OK, burn, I think this is sort of, quite interesting. "Burn" is the idea of trying to create the physical instantiation of one of these courses. And I think a lot of you received, I think all of you received one of these music books in your gift pack. A little present for you. Just to tell you quickly about it: this is an engineering textbook. It's about 300 pages long, hardbound. This costs, anybody guess? How much would it cost in a bookstore?

Audience: 65 dollars.

Richard Baraniuk: This costs 22 dollars to the student. Why does it cost 22 dollars? Because it's published on demand and it's developed from this repository of open materials. If this book were to be published by a regular publisher, it would cost at least 122 dollars.

So what we're seeing is moving this burning or publication process from the regular sort of single-authored book towards community-authored materials that are modular, that are customized to each individual class and published on demand very inexpensively, either pushed out through Amazon, or published directly through an on-demand press, like Coop. And I think that this is an extraordinarily interesting area because there is tremendous area under this long tail in publishing. We're not talking about the Harry Potter end, right at the left side. We're talking about books on hyper geometric partial differential equations. Right, books that might sell 100 copies a year, 1,000 copies a year. There is tremendous sustaining revenue under this long tail to sustain open projects like ours, but also to sustain this new emergence of on-demand publishers, like Coop, who produced these two books. And I think one of the things that you should take away from this talk, is that there's an impending cut-out-the-middle-man, disintermediation, that's going to be happening in the publishing industry, and it's going to reach a crescendo over the next few years, and I think that it's for our benefit, really, and for the world's benefit.

OK, so what are the enablers? What's really making all of this happen? There's tons of technology, and the only piece of technology that I really want to talk about is XML. How many people know about XML? Oh, great, so it's the future of the web, right? It's semantic representation of comment, content, and what you can really think of XML in this case, is it's the packaging that we're putting around these pages. Remember we took the book, tore the pages out? Well, what the XML is going to do is it's going to turn those pages into Lego blocks. XML are the nubs on the Lego that allow us to combine the content together in myriad different ways, and it provides us a framework to share content. So, it lets you take this ecosystem in its primordial state, right, of all this content, all the pages you've torn out of books, and create highly sophisticated learning machines: books, courses, course packs.

It gives you the ability to personalize the learning experience to each individual student, so that every student can have a book or a course that's customized to their learning style, their context, their language and the things that excite them. It lets you reuse the same materials in multiple different ways and surprising new ways. It lets you interconnect ideas indicating how fields relate to each other, and I'll just give you my personal story. We came up with this six-and-a-half years ago because I teach the stuff in the red box.

And my day job, as Chris said, I'm an electrical engineering professor. I teach signal processing and my challenge was to show that this math -- wow, about half of you have already fallen asleep just looking at the equation --


but this seemingly dry math is actually the center of this tremendously powerful web that links technology -- that links really cool applications like music synthesizers to tremendous economic opportunities, but also governed by intellectual property. And the thing that I realized is there was no way that I, as an engineer, could write this book that would get all of this across. We needed a community to do it and we needed new tools to be able to interconnect these ideas, and I think that really, in a sense, what we're trying to do is make Minsky's dream come to a reality, where you can imagine all the books in a library actually starting to talk to each other. And people who are teachers out here, whoever taught, you know this -- it's the interconnections between ideas that teaching is really all about.

OK, back to math. Imagine this is possible -- that every single equation that you click on in one of your new e-texts is something that you're going to be able to explore and experiment with. So imagine your kid's algebra textbook in seventh grade. You can click on every single equation and bring up a little tool to be able to experiment with it, tinker with it, understand it, because we really don't understand until we do. The same type of mark-up, like mathML, for chemistry. Imagine chemistry textbooks that actually understand the structure of how molecules are formed. Imagine music XML that actually lets you delve into the semantic structure of music, play with it, understand it. It's no wonder that everybody's getting into it, right? Even the three wise men.


OK, the second big enabler, and this is where I told a big lie. The second big enabler is intellectual property, because in fact I got up here and I talked about how great the music culture is. We can share and rip, mix and burn, but in fact that's all illegal. And we would be accused of pirates for doing that, because this music has been propertized. It's now owned, right, much of it by big industries. So, really, the key thing here is we can't let this happen. We can't let this Napster thing happen here. So, what we have to do is get it right from the very beginning and what we have to do is find an intellectual property framework that makes sharing safe, and makes it easily understandable, and the inspiration here is taken from open-source software, things like Linux and the GPL.

And the ideas, the creative commons licenses. How many people have heard of creative commons? If you have not, you must learn about it. At the bottom of every piece of material in Connexions and in lots of other projects, you can find their logo. Clicking on that logo takes you to an absolute no-nonsense, human-readable document, a deed, that tells you exactly what you can do with this content. In fact, you're free to share it, to do all of these things, to copy it, to change it, even to make commercial use of it as long as you attribute the author. Because in academic publishing and much of educational publishing, it's really this idea of sharing knowledge and making impact that's why people write, not necessarily making bucks. We're not talking about Harry Potter, right? We're at the long tail end here. Behind that is the legal code, so if you want to very carefully construct it, and creative commons is taking off -- over 43 million things out there, licensed with a creative commons license. Not just text, but music, images, video, and there's actually a tremendous uptake of the number of people that are actually licensing music to make it free for people who do this whole idea of re-sampling, rip, mixing, burning and sharing.

So I'd like to conclude with just the last few points. So, we've built this idea of a commons. People are using it. We get over 500,000 unique visitors per month, just to our particular site. MIT open courseware, which is another large open-content site, gets a similar number of hits, but how do we protect this? How do we protect it into the future? And the first thing that people are probably thinking is quality control, right? Because we're saying that anybody can contribute things to this commons. Anybody can contribute anything. So that could be a problem.

It didn't take long until people started contributing materials, for example, on lingerie, which is actually a pretty good module. The only problem is it's plagiarized from a major French feminist journal, and when you go to the supposed course website, it points to a lingerie-selling website. This is a little bit of a problem, so we clearly need some kind of idea of quality control, and this is really where the idea of review and peer review comes in. OK, you come to TED. Why do you come to TED? Because Chris and his team have ensured that things are very, very high quality, right, and so we need to be able to do the same thing. And we need to be able to design structures and what we're doing is designing social software to enable anyone to build their own peer review process, and we call these things "lenses." And basically what they allow is anyone out there to develop their own peer review process, so that they can focus on the content in the repository that they think is really important and you can think of TED as a potential lens.

So I'd just like to end by saying, you can really view this as a call to action. Connexions and open content is all about sharing knowledge. All of you here are tremendously imbued with tremendous amounts of knowledge and what I'd like to do is invite each and every one of you to contribute to this project and other projects of its type, because I think together we can truly change the landscape of education and educational publishing.

So, thanks very much.

Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 16 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 745
Posted by: tedtalks on Dec 22, 2008

Rice University professor Richard Baraniuk explains the vision behind Connexions, his open-source, online education system. It cuts out the textbook, allowing teachers to share and modify course materials freely, anywhere in the world.

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