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Open Textbooks Advocate Circles Back To Tech

Rice University electrical and computer engineering professor Richard Baraniuk helped create OpenStax online series to solve a practical need for a good textbook.
His research team calls its methodology SPARFA, short for Sparse Factor Analysis, a technique that can be applied to learning and content analytics. You can see a video lecture in which he explains it in detail, from the Personalized Learning Workshop held in April at Rice.

Using SPARFA, OpenStax Tutor is able to translate a bunch of student scores into what's known as a knowledge network -- which can be graphed as clusters of connected network nodes -- showing the gaps in a student's knowledge. In most adaptive software produced to date, these knowledge networks are created manually by teams of experts, but OpenStax Tutor automates the process.

In its current beta form, OpenStax Tutor is being tested as an online homework system in courses offered at Rice, Georgia Tech and the University of Texas El Paso, with smaller tests at Duke University and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill that are starting to ramp up. The project incorporates cognitive science research from Duke on productive patterns of learning, and Duke is also working to measure results from the project.

"We're able to get anywhere from one half to one letter grade improvement in outcomes," Baraniuk said, and it's an approach that can be applied to any course where students do homework or practice skills in a form that can be assessed online. The current software is not fully personalized to allow each student to follow an individual learning path, but that will be part of the next phase of research, he said.

Rice offers OpenStax Tutor for free, while reserving the right to charge for it as a cloud service if institutions adopt it at scale. Baraniuk said he is not sure whether the service will endure as a distinct product, even though one potential use would be to serve as the online homework system to accompany OpenStax textbooks, making them more competitive with commercial textbooks that come bundled with online tools. OpenStax Tutor could wind up being more significant as a research project that will inform the development of commercial adaptive learning software and homework systems, he said.

If the impact on the quality of education is positive, Baraniuk will be happy. While his formal training was an engineer, not an educator, he takes his teaching responsibilities seriously. He is pleased to see these two parts of his life coming together.

"I love teaching, and I just kind of fell into some kind of perfect career," he said.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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