Rice University founds e-learning center

Rice Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship embraces popular e-learning, textbook, K-12 initiatives

Rice University announced today the creation of the Rice Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship (RDLS) to bring its array of forward-thinking online education initiatives under one banner.

Rice has been a leader in e-learning for more than a decade, since the 1999 foundation of Connexions, a platform that shares customizable classroom materials with more than a million visitors a month. The university extended its presence last year with the successful introduction of STEMscopes, an online science curriculum adopted by the Texas State Board of Education as a supplement to classroom textbooks in grades five through eight.

And this summer, Rice embarked upon two new online initiatives. First, the university introduced OpenStax College and posted the first two of a planned set of college-level textbooks that are available free in digital form and at a nominal cost for printed texts. Second, Rice became one of 12 new partners with Coursera, a platform for world-renowned universities to provide online courses.

“The rapidly evolving set of technologies around e-learning presents a great opportunity both to bring what we do at universities to a much larger set of learners and to enhance the quality of instruction on campus,” Rice President David Leebron said. “Our commitment to personalized instruction and engagement with our students on campus will remain at the core of our endeavors, and in some contexts new technologies will enable us to intensify that engagement.”

“We have multiple disparate digital learning initiatives, and we realized that there were substantial potential synergies if we could pull these together in a reasonably thoughtful way,” said Provost George McLendon.

Stronger links between Connexions and STEMscopes will help both bring great benefit to potentially millions of students from kindergarten through college, he said.

STEMscopes hit the ground running last summer when Texas, with reduced funding for new textbooks, chose 12 vendors to provide supplemental online materials for the state’s grades five-to-eight science classrooms. The Rice program, the only one to be developed by a nonprofit institution, captured nearly 50 percent of the state market, more than any other vendor.

Now STEMscopes is expanding not only in scope, with K-12 programs coming online this year, but also in range, with a national initiative that goes from kindergarten through high school biology, physics and chemistry classes. “There will soon be a new set of national science education standards, and we are working on a product that will focus specifically on those standards and will be rolled out in about a year,” said Reid Whitaker, RDLS executive director and leader of the STEMscopes program.

STEMscopes has a natural ally in Connexions founder and OpenStax College director Richard Baraniuk, McLendon said. Baraniuk, Rice’s Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is developing machine algorithms for adaptive learning that will customize materials to the learning styles of individual students.

“Rich is one of the world’s experts on the development and implementation of these algorithms,” said McLendon of Baraniuk, who will serve as RDLS faculty director. “By coupling his work with STEMscopes, it becomes more than theoretical: We can roll this out for free to school districts across the state – and across the country – and get massive data on the learning styles of millions of students.

“Rice has a unique ability to move ahead on this project because we already have a huge, vertically integrated base of students across all of the grades,” he said.

McLendon said he expects there will be opportunities to tie adaptive learning techniques to the range of college textbooks offered through OpenStax College.

More than 13,000 copies of the first two – College Physics and Introduction to Sociology – have been downloaded or print copies ordered since they became available last month and have been adopted at 66 colleges and universities, Baraniuk said. “If you do a naïve calculation of how many students have adopted the physics book alone and how much a standard physics book costs, then we’ll save students well over $600,000 this fall,” he said. “That’s a magic number, because it equals the investment in the book by our funders. Within a few weeks of publication, the book has basically paid for itself in student savings.” With more than 9,000 downloads for the physics book and 4,000 for sociology, he estimates more than a $1 million total in student savings so far.

Three additional textbooks will be introduced within six months, and funds are being raised for 20 more, Baraniuk said. “When we talk to faculty, especially at community colleges, it’s a really easy sell,” he said. “Students are under tremendous financial pressure, and this is a way to save them a lot of money without giving up anything in terms of quality.”

“We’ve worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Maxfield Foundation to address a big unmet need for inexpensive or even free textbooks for students making the transition from high school to college, in particular for the junior college market,” McLendon said. “For many junior college students, their biggest expense is not their tuition, it’s their books, at a couple hundred dollars a pop. There’s no reason the books have to cost that much.”

McLendon said there’s a clear advantage to having STEMscopes and OpenStax College under one roof. “There’s a lot of overlap between advanced-placement high school and junior college course material,” he said. “So as we develop these books, the expertise we gain feeds back into the development of the K-12 curricula.”

The center will report to Caroline Levander, Rice’s vice provost for interdisciplinary initiatives, who will be responsible for developing its profile and initiatives both within the university and nationally. “A key piece of my role will be to ensure the center collaborates with other endeavors so that we are more than the sum of our parts,” said Levander, who is also interested in adding digital authoring tools for educators to the range of services offered by RDLS.

The newest initiative is external, but Rice officials expect Coursera to help the university solidify its standing as an online educator of the first rank.

Within the first week of online registration in July, more than 20,000 people enrolled in Rice courses via Coursera. By late August, more than 24,000 had signed up just for An Introduction to Interactive Computing with Python to be led by Computer Science Chair Joe Warren and Associate Professor Scott Rixner with assistance from lecturers John Greiner and Stephen Wong.

“We’re excited and we’re a little scared,” said Warren, who is running an eight-week “shakedown cruise” of the course for Rice students before the Coursera version goes online in October. “I’ve been a professor for a long time, and I like my job, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had this level of excitement. I’m learning a lot.

“The idea of having 24,000 students or more looking at what you’re doing sharpens your focus,” he said.

Another course, Chemistry: Concept Development and Application, is an extension of Rice Professor John Hutchinson’s popular Connexions collection. Hutchinson, who also serves as Rice’s dean of undergraduates, has the chops to lecture by webcam. He has taught a Nanotechnology for Teachers course for high school instructors live, through the Internet and via teleconference for a decade.

Years of experience through Connexions, an award-winning series of educational games by the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning (CTTL) and other initiatives with online components have prepared Rice well to fulfill a central tenet – engagement with the community – of Leebron’s Vision for the Second Century. But the impact of these programs could well last beyond a single century, McLendon said.

“Rice has already made some important contributions to digital materials and digital education, but we need now to increase our level of engagement,” Leebron said. “Our centennial year, 2012, is also the year in which the elite research universities made it clear that they were going to be major participants in online education, both as developers of technology and providers of content. We are pleased to be an early participant with Coursera and expect to broaden and deepen our commitment to e-learning as the landscape of higher education changes significantly over the next decades. The formation of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship is a reflection of that commitment.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.