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Open Source Learning

Richard Baraniuk gave an interesting TED talk about Open Source Learning [1]. His project named Connexions which is dedicated to the purpose of creating Creative Commons free textbooks is a leader in this space [2].

He spoke about Catherine Schmidt-Jones who wrote 197 modules and 12 courses on music [3], that’s a very significant amount of work!

He also mentioned the translation of the work into other languages. I wonder how well the changes get merged back across the language divide. We have ongoing disputes in the free software community about whether various organisations do enough work to send patches back upstream, this seems likely to be more of a problem in situations where most of the upstream authors can’t even understand the language in which the changes are written and when the changes involve something a lot more subtle than an change to an algorithm. This would be particularly difficult for Chinese and Japanese as those languages seem to lack quality automatic translation.

He mentioned Teachers Without Borders [4] in passing. Obviously an organisation that wants to bring education to some of the poorer parts of the world can’t have a curriculum that involves $250 of text books per year for a high school student (which was about what my parents paid when I was in year 12) or $500 of text books per year for a university student (which might be a low estimate for some courses as a single text can cost more than $120). Free content and on-demand printing (or viewing PDF files on a OLPC system) can dramatically lower the cost of education.

It’s widely believed that free content without the ability to remix is cultural imperialism. This is apparently one of the reasons that the connexions project is based on the Creative Commons Attribution license [5]. So anyone anywhere can translate it, make a derivative work, or collate parts of it with other work. I expect that another factor is the great lack of success of all the various schemes that involve people contributing content for a share of the profits, the profits just don’t match the amount of work involved. Philanthropy and reputation seem to be the only suitable motivating factors for contributing to such projects.

One of the stated benefits of the project is to have computer based content with live examples of equations. Sometimes it is possible to just look at an equation and know what it means, but often more explanation is required. The ability to click on an equation, plug in different values and have them automatically calculated and possibly graphed if appropriate can make things a lot easier. Even if the result is merely what would be provided by reading a text book and spending a few minutes with a scientific calculator the result should be a lot better in terms of learning as the time required to operate a calculator can break the student’s concentration. Even better it’s possible to have dynamic explanations tailored to the user’s demand. To try this out I searched on Ohm’s Law (something that seems to be unknown by many people on the Internet who claim to understand electricity). I was directed to an off-site page which used Flash to display a tutorial on Ohm’s Law, the tutorial was quite good but it does seem to depart from the free content mission of the project to direct people off-site to proprietary content which uses a proprietary delivery system. I think that the Connexions project could do without links to sites such as college-cram.com.

One of the most important features of the project is peer review “lenses“. The High Performance Computing Lens [6] has some good content and will be of interest to many people in the free software community – but again it requires Flash.

One final nit is the search engine which is slow and not very useful. A search for “engine” returned lots of hits about “engineering” which isn’t useful if you want to learn about how engines work. But generally this is a great project, it seems to be doing a lot of good and it’s got enough content to encourage other people and organisations to get involved. It would be good to get some text books about free software on there!

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