OpenStax to Adapt Its Free Digital College Text Model for K-12

Associate Editor

High school students will have access to free digital textbooks that personalize learning to meet their individual abilities, if a professor’s vision, launched in a simpler format on college campuses, becomes reality in K-12. 

OpenStax—a Rice University-based nonprofit—has received a $9 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to adapt its free, digital college textbook concept to high schools, according to Richard Baraniuk, founder of OpenStax College, the higher education division of OpenStax. He’s also a professor of engineering at Rice, in Houston.

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The K-12 adaptation involves using “machine learning” within digital texts, so data is gathered and patterns recognized that will interpret a user’s behavior. “Think of how Netflix is able to suggest movies you might want to see based on ones you’ve seen, or how Amazon can recommend books or products from your past purchases,” Baraniuk said in an interview.

Those kinds of predictive algorithms can be applied to education, but “we’re also bringing cognitive science models about how the brain actually works, how students learn, how they forget, and how ideas get into memory,” he said.

Ultimately, the goal is to improve learning outcomes. By using metrics like which kinds of test questions students answer incorrectly, and tracking students’ activity within a digital text, Baraniuk and his “machine-learning” students will devise ways to guide students through material that they may find difficult.

Five Houston-area high schools will eventually be asked to pilot the digitized texts next year, and a full-scale launch is likely in the 2016-17 school year, Baraniuk said.

For now, the two-year project involves developing a pilot of two fully personalized textbooks in two subject areas: Advanced Placement biology and high school physics.

Biology and physics have already been covered with the college version of OpenStax books, where digital texts are available for free, and print versions, for those who want them, are available at prices lower than standard college texts.

Digital Disruption

Baraniuk said his organization’s open-source texts have attracted some interest from for-profit publishers, like John Wiley & Sons Inc., which partners with OpenStax on a college-level biology textbook. Wiley is bundling computer-based homework with that text, he said.  

“We’re in a very disruptive time in publishing,’ he said. “Everybody is thinking very hard about the conventional business model—which will have to change in this digital age.”

To create content for their open education college texts, OpenStax has either contracted with publishers for rights to existing texts, or contracted with textbook authors and entities like Words & Numbers, he said, which is a Baltimore, Md.-based company that produces digital learning tools.

The goal with the OpenStax college initiative is to develop a library of 25 textbooks for the highest impact college courses, by which Baraniuk means “the ones with the highest enrollments, coupled with the high cost of materials,” he said. For example, their physics text goes to nearly 1 million students and the cost of the textbooks can surpass $300 each.

“The expectation with the K-12 effort is that we will be able to develop [digital texts] using a similar model to produce books for the high school market,” he said.

Funding for OpenStax’s work has come from a number of prominent philanthropies, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the Maxfield Foundation, the Calvin K. Kanzanjian Foundation and the Leon Lowenstein Foundation. Rice University’s announcement of the grant is here.

Video credit: Rice University

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