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The Future Of Online Education : 2014

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This interview is one in a series produced by the Skoll World Forum with the participation of today’s leading thinkers and innovators in education.  All of the contributors represent projects that have won WISE Awards, which recognize innovative solutions in overcoming barriers to education. This series aims to shed light on those projects that have helped provide access to quality education around the world.

For example, you can check here for information on American University Online, which is a high end provider of online educations. By making education more accessible, organizations such as these are opening up new doors for students all over the world that did not exist 10 years ago. Allowing prospective students to reach their learning and career goals with minimal debt is an outstanding service to provide and is perhaps the main reason why online institutions are growing in popularity.

Richard Baraniuk is Founder and Director of Connexions.

What was the one moment or experience that ultimately gave rise to Connexions?

In 1999, I wanted to create a book for the electrical engineering course I was teaching on Signals and Systems.  I was approached by numerous publishers but I had one condition: the book should be made available electronically, for free, to the developing world.  They had no interest in that type of provision so a group of us at Rice University came up with the idea of the Connexions platform, a repository of content that would be open and freely accessible to the world.

The idea took root and today the Signals and System course book has been downloaded more than three million times accompanied now by over 20,000 learning modules receiving over 1 million visitors per month.  All of the content is available under a Creative Commons License which allows for the free distribution for otherwise copyrighted work.

What would the world look like if you achieved your vision?

Our vision is that in the future the only limit to a person’s learning would be his or her educational aspirations.  Access to quality content and educational technology would be unfettered, the community would continuously improve and add to the knowledge base, and an ecosystem of products and services would provide an array of options and sustainability for the whole effort. Basically, geography and financial means would have less influence on the quality of education that an individual would receive.

How is your organization reaching towards that goal, and what has been the impact of your efforts thus far?

We are making significant progress and open education resources are certainly becoming more mainstream.  In a few years, I imagine educators and students first seek out open educational resources then defaulting to traditional proprietary content if that is not available.  The quality of the OER resources continue to improve each quarter and we are seeing a direct correlation between quality and usage.

For example, we launched OpenStax College in 2012, a repository of peer-reviewed, professional grade free textbooks for most courses. In a relatively short period of time our high quality texts have been adopted by more than 400 institutions, viewed millions of times, downloaded more than 400,000 times, and we’ve saved students over $5.5 million.  These numbers are growing rapidly and we’ll see further growth as we build out our library of 25 text books.  The use of Connexions is also growing – we currently have over 3,000,000 unique visitors and 60,000 students, with numbers continuing to grow.

What were some of the barriers you’ve had to overcome–either personally or professionally–to be successful?

We were challenged with a fundamental question: “how do open resources cross the chasm into the mainstream?” As a scientist my first call was to our data and we quickly realized that a very small percentage of our users actually created derivatives of open content. This called into question our underlying assumption that end users would adapt open content to adopt it for their courses.

Since this discovery we have flipped our assumption 180 degrees and now believe that teachers first adopt and then adapt to suit their needs.  This change challenged organization and by making this switch, we’ve actually seen adoption rates soar and the number of derivative versions has also increased.

What kind of impact are you looking to have 5 or 10 years from now, and how do you plan to get there?

We’ve just re-launched the Connexions website improving the user experience and next year we will be rolling out new code in Connexions that will make editing simpler than ever.  On the OpenStax College site our goal is to build out a library of 25 books (this will actually be completed in the next three to four years).  Over the next ten years we expect to achieve 10% market share for the courses we publish.

This transformative impact on the market and over a five year period students will save $750 million! The ecosystem of service providers will flourish and the entire movement will be self-sustaining. However, the single biggest gains will be found in learning outcomes as OER becomes integrated with adaptive learning technologies that utilize machine learning algorithms. The community is on the cusp of a very bright future and discoveries.

It will take a combined, collaborative effort of educators, students, producers, and technologists to realize these goals. This is where the World Education Summit for Education (WISE) plays a crucial role.   Through the Summit and initiatives such as the WISE Awards, WISE brings together leaders from diverse fields and cultures and establishes a truly global network where innovations are promoted, connections are made  and seemingly unachievable goals can be achieved.

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