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Throw away your textbooks: here is the manual 2.0


LONDON, England (CNN) – Catherine Schmidt-Jones, or Kitty as her friends call her, is, in her own words, “an obscure music teacher in Champaign, Illinois.”

Kitty Schmidt-Jones, whose Connections modules have been viewed over 7 million times

But that’s not strictly true: Schmidt-Jones is far from obscure. Through her online music lessons, she has reached thousands of people and her educational materials have been viewed online over 7 million times.

Schmidt-Jones is just one of many professors and educators who use the Connexions website ( to reach potential students. And what’s more, they do it for free.

Connexions was created by Professor Richard Baraniuk of Rice University in 1999. He wanted to produce learning materials for his electrical engineering students, but was frustrated with the cost and slowness of producing a textbook.

“Access was going to be limited – it would only be available to a few students in the United States,” he told CNN. “In the developing world, it would hardly be available at all.

“And the production process is incredibly slow. For example, getting Pluto out of all the textbooks in our country will take a decade. By then, Pluto will be reinstated as a planet, so we’ll have to put it back.”

So Baraniuk decided to do something different. At the time, he was interested in Linux software. He realized that his open source concepts could be adapted for education.

“I realized there was a better way that was made possible by information technology, where we could write textbooks as a community and make them free and open for people to use and use. reuse, ”he explained.

From the Connexions website, authors can download small pieces of learning material called “modules”. Modules can be chained together to form entire courses, or “collections”. Anyone can create a collection from any combination of modules. So, for example, a module on Shakespeare’s Hamlet might appear in collections on literature, Elizabethan history, or the dramatic arts.

This modular approach means that lessons can be tailored both for personal use and by teachers who can tailor each collection to a particular curriculum, class, or even student.

To ensure the quality of its content, the site supports peer review and third party approval of modules and all material is credited to the author.

And once a collection is assembled, a version of the textbook can be printed on demand via a third-party Qoop for around $ 24 – considerably less than the cost of most academic textbooks, but still enough to pay the author. part of the royalties.

“Much of the back-end handled by traditional publishers can be handled very efficiently by this new generation of information technology,” says Baraniuk. “So we can reduce the cost for everyone, sometimes to zero for the materials that are in line.”

The Connections formula certainly works. Today, the site has nearly 5,000 modules written by university professors, school teachers and other educators, and although most relate to the sciences (reflecting its roots), the arts and the sciences. human development.

The content attracts 600,000 users per month, ranging from K-12 to college-level engineering students. Fifty percent of its traffic comes from outside the United States, 30 to 40 percent from the developing world. And as the site grows, Baraniuk is seeing an increase in the number of people using its modules, especially in the arts and humanities, for informal learning.

Even governments are starting to notice its potential. Connexions recently secured a formal memorandum of understanding to provide course materials to Vietnam, with other partner countries in the works.

And Connexions also crosses language barriers. While most of the site’s modules are in English, the site’s volunteer translators help meet the demand for teaching materials in other languages, where the translation and production of traditional textbooks is often prohibitively expensive.

“My particular book in Connexions is quite popular,” says Baraniuk, “But I was translated by three volunteer engineering students at the University of Texas, El Paso and my book is much more popular in Spanish than in English.

“It really gives you a sense of the global reach.”

But perhaps its most striking advantage is the site’s ability to connect talented educators who might not have considered going the traditional publishing route, like Catherine Schmidt-Jones, with people who want to learn but do not have access to books.

These authors take the opportunity to pass on their knowledge. “I don’t think a music textbook editor would have even looked at my material,” Schmidt-Jones told CNN. “For me, going to a publisher and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a really good writer, you should look at my textbooks!’ – I don’t think that would have ever happened. “

As she writes with her students in mind, Schmidt-Jones’ work has been used by people from North America to Australia, Argentina to Uganda. She receives emails every week from teachers and students who have found her material useful: “Your explanation of tones and minor scales saved my theory. Thank you,” one example reads.

“Thank you for this excellent explanation of perfect intervals! It has been very helpful for our class, ”reads another.

It was this response that prompted her to write more for the site.

“Doing something that’s so popular makes me feel good about myself. It’s a pat on the back that I do the right thing and people enjoy it,” she said. at CNN.

Schmidt-Jones currently has 167 modules available through Connections. Some she can eliminate in an afternoon. More complex modules, with sound files, figures and diagrams, can take a few days to write. Schmidt-Jones adapts this to her tutoring – it’s what she does for fun. She also helped a friend of her post on the site.

Richard Baraniuk praises his work. “She is just the tip of the iceberg of a new community of authors who are going to be able to really enrich and animate educational material for everyone,” he told CNN. And thanks to Connexions, they can reach an incredibly large audience. “They can really amplify their impact on a truly global level,” he said.

And for Schmidt-Jones, it is an outlet for his passion for teaching.

“I am convinced that making a good education accessible to all is one of the answers to fixing all that is wrong with the world,” she told CNN. “It’s hard to express how exciting it is to feel that I am actively contributing to an effort to do so.”


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