Saturday, October 08, 2005

Baraniuk, King and Kelty

Connexions: Sharing Knoweldge and Building Communities

Richard Baraniuk, W. Joseph King and Christopher M. Kelty,
Rice University
Thursday, September 29, 2005, 2:15-3:00 pm

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Connexions is an open-access repository of scholarly materials and an open-source software toolkit to help authors publish and collaborate, instructors rapidly build and share custom courses, and learners explore the links among concepts, courses, and disciplines (see The design of Connexions is based on a set of intuitions that are shared by a remarkably wide range of academics: that knowledge should be free and open to use and re-use; that collaboration should be easier, not harder; that people should get credit and kudos for contributing to research and education; and that concepts and ideas are linked in unusual and surprising ways and not the simple linear forms that textbooks present. But, translating this consensus into real software and real legal assemblages has been anything but intuitive.

Connexions is probably best thought of as an experiment into what might be necessary to effectively create the conditions for the widespread re-use of educational or scholarly materials by communities of educators and learners. Connexions creates “modules” of information—smallish documents intended to communicate one concept, one procedure, one set of questions about something. String a bunch of modules together, and you have a course, or weave a curriculum entirely of your choosing. Connexions directly challenges the current notion of a “textbook” by exploding it and asking different people to create its parts in a semi-structured but re-configurable manner, rather than having a single Maestro do it all and take all the credit. The demand for Connexions’ open-access educational content has been surprising; in 2004 over 6.4 million people from 157 countries visited the website.

The first goal of this presentation is to explore the design philosophy of Connexions, its impacts, and the challenges we have faced over the past six years. We will pay particular attention to our design decisions regarding:
• content organization using XML (including balancing the power of the semantic web for easy sharing and re-use of course materials with the need for new, easy-to-use editing and course 12 building tools);
• content quality assessment (including replacing traditional “ gate keeper ” based pre-review procedures with distributed and scalable post-publication peer review systems);
• intellectual property (including our deliberations on the choice of the Creative Commons “attribution” license).

The second goal of the presentation is to present a case study of building an inter-institutional, global community of electrical engineering faculty and researchers in the area of digital signal processing (DSP). Members of this growing community point to a crisis in engineering education today, with decreasing enrollments, less engaged and less prepared students, and pressure to cover increasing amounts of material. Curricula are increasingly stove-piped and disconnected, in spite of research indicating that for women and underrepresented minority students, the study of science and engineering is made meaningful by connections to other fields. Moreover, a leading complaint from industry regarding engineering graduates is their lack of collaboration and team skills and lack of hands-on design experience. The Connexions DSP community aims to attacks these issues head-on by breaking away from traditional textbook and lecture-based education and towards a new framework where communities of educators, students, and field practitioners continually interact, collaborate, connect, and explore active content.

The field of digital signal processing (DSP) is an ideal venue to study, because DSP technologies are embedded in a host of important, fast moving applications, including cell phones and modems; MP3, JPEG, and MPEG encoding for digital audio, cameras, and television; medical imaging scanners; radar and sonar systems; remote sensing satellites; and antilock braking systems to name just a few. DSP has become a central theme in electrical and computer engineering curricula—the first course in many ECE departments. DSP is even trickling into community colleges and high schools. And, thanks to new software tools and ever-advancing computer power, DSP applications can make otherwise dull-seeming engineering mathematics come alive via the sights and sounds of multimedia.

We will study the approach of the Connexions DSP community to build and sustain the community through collaborations with for-profit corporations (National Instruments, who are building a free “LabVIEW” player that will allow interactive DSP simulations to run in any web browser and who are contributing training materials to Connexions), publishers (Cambridge University Press, who will be publishing DSP texts for free in Connexions), and professional societies (the IEEE, who are exploring a peer review process for Connexions DSP materials).


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