Rice’s OpenStax awarded $90M to lead first-of-its-kind NSF research hub for transformational learning and education research

SafeInsights brings together researchers, educational institutions and digital learning platforms to enable timely, impactful studies designed to overcome the challenges faced in education

Baraniuk, Moore, Dittmar, DesRoches

OpenStax at Rice University was awarded $90 million from the National Science Foundation to build and lead SafeInsights, a groundbreaking research and development (R&D) hub for inclusive learning and education research to benefit tens of millions of students and their instructors across all educational levels.

According to project leaders at OpenStax, the world’s largest publisher of free, open education resources, R&D is a powerful tool for advancing education, but it remains difficult to conduct large-scale, reliable research that yields the strongest results for students and teachers. SafeInsights will enable extensive, long-term research on the predictors of effective learning while protecting student privacy. This five-year project represents the NSF’s largest single investment in R&D infrastructure for education at a national scale.

“We are thrilled to announce an investment of $90 million in SafeInsights, marking a significant step forward in our commitment to advancing scientific research in STEM education,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said. “There is an urgent need for research-informed strategies capable of transforming educational systems, empowering our nation’s workforce and propelling discoveries in the science of learning. By investing in cutting-edge infrastructure and fostering collaboration among researchers and educators, we are paving the way for transformative discoveries and equitable opportunities for learners across the nation.”

James Moore
Assistant Director for the Directorate for STEM Education at NSF James Moore. Photos by Jeff Fitlow.

Funded through NSF’s Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-2 (Mid-scale RI-2) program, which places it alongside other critical infrastructure for scientific discovery such as telescopes and supercomputers, SafeInsights is the largest research award in the history of Rice. 

SafeInsights will serve as a central hub for a multidisciplinary team of 80 partners and collaborating institutions, including major digital learning platforms that currently serve tens of millions of U.S. learners. The inclusion of researchers, educators, developers and students from diverse, representative backgrounds will be a top priority. 

“SafeInsights represents a pivotal moment for Rice University and a testament to our nation’s commitment to educational research,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches said. “It will accelerate student learning through studies that result in more innovative, evidence-based tools and practices.”   

According to national polls conducted by the Data Quality Campaign, 86% of teachers recognize the importance of research in effective teaching. However, the majority of teachers must individually piece together research-informed teaching and learning strategies, often with limited resources.

Through SafeInsights, the education research community will generate research-informed insights about teaching and learning for educators, institutions and learning platforms to use to create tailored programs, pedagogies and policies that will equip learners to thrive.

“Education R&D opens up opportunities to better understand how students learn in different contexts,” said Richard Baraniuk, SafeInsights leader, OpenStax director and Rice professor. “Learning is complex. Research can tackle this complexity and help get the right tools into the hands of educators and students, but to do so, we need reliable information on how students learn. Just as progress in health care research sparked stunning advances in personalized medicine, we need similar precision in education to support all students, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds.” 

Richard Baraniuk, James Moore, Amy Dittmar, Reggie DesRoches
Richard Baraniuk, James Moore, Amy Dittmar, Reginald DesRoches.

To accomplish its objectives, SafeInsights has a world-class, experienced team with OpenStax-Rice University, 40 partners and 39 collaborating institutions: 

  • R&D partners with expertise in learning and education research, open science, technology, student data privacy, community engagement and project management, including: AEM Corporation, Arizona State University (ASU), Center for Open Science, Digital Promise, Future of Privacy Forum, Georgia Institute of Technology, Morehouse College, National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships, Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, TERC, The University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Washington University in St. Louis and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 
  • Digital learning platforms spanning all age groups, including lead-partner OpenStax, ASSISTments, EdPlus at ASU, CourseKata, Infinite Campus, Inc., iSTART, Quill.org, TERC’s Data Arcade, UPenn’s Massive Online Open Courses, Western Governors University (WGU) and The WritingPal.
  • Thought partners providing implementation guidance. 
  • Collaborating educational institutions, 77% of which are minority-serving institutions.

By instrumenting large-scale digital learning platforms for research, SafeInsights will capture a comprehensive picture of the learning process currently unavailable to researchers, including information from past academic experiences that can be paired with what is known about current learning processes, said Baraniuk. For example, a research study could reveal what strategies are most effective for middle school students struggling with reading comprehension in algebra to prepare them for success in high school and college. SafeInsights makes it possible to conduct comprehensive research studies while safeguarding privacy, added Baraniuk. These studies can be replicated and expanded across different platforms, enabling a deeper understanding of the multitude of factors that influence learning outcomes, leading to the development of more effective, evidence-based teaching methods and tools. 

“By design, SafeInsights stringently protects student privacy through an innovative architecture that makes large-scale information about learning available for research without revealing that protected information to researchers,” said J.P. Slavinsky, technical director at OpenStax and executive director of SafeInsights. Instead, researchers will develop study plans and analysis software to operate within digital learning platforms. This software will access learning information through secure data enclaves to produce aggregate insights about learning. The aggregate knowledge will undergo careful human oversight to check that it contains no identifiable student information before being returned to researchers, ensuring that all data remains secure within the original platforms and educational institutions, he said.

Prior awards from the NSF, Institute of Education Sciences (R305N210064), individuals and philanthropic funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures, Walton Family Foundation, Valhalla Foundation and William & Flora Hewlett Foundation equipped OpenStax with the experience and capacity to lead this major R&D effort. Looking ahead, SafeInsights will collaborate with funder networks to leverage this national R&D infrastructure and grow its reach. To learn more about SafeInsights and support for its future work, please visit safeinsights.org.

Watch the April 24 news conference here.