Rich Baraniuk: Personalized Learning

“It’s not just enough to give a student a free book. You have to support them in their learning.” – Rich Baraniuk

OpenStax started 20 years ago in Oct. of 1999, when Richard Baraniuk, a Rice professor of electrical and computer engineering, set the lofty goal of personalizing education. “I’d been teaching about six years, and I’d taught the same course a few times. When I’d notice students in the back row struggling to pay attention, I’d haul the offenders into my office hours and spend some time finding out why they were not interested in my class. What I learned astounded me. I learned that what I was teaching didn’t connect into their context, into what they wanted to be.”

Baraniuk soon realized that he needed to scale the process of personalized learning, and his first step was creating high-quality, free, digital textbooks and making them accessible to everyone. The impact of OpenStax on the college textbook world has been unprecedented. With 37 available texts, OpenStax has succeeded in disrupting an industry that has become a significant financial barrier for students.

Baraniuk’s second move was to leverage the progress of OpenStax to personalize learning. He and his team are accomplishing this through OpenStax Tutor, an adaptive learning platform that works within the digital OpenStax textbook. “OpenStax Tutor enhances the typical student-teacher workflow,” Baraniuk explains. “It allows teachers to assign homework where students don’t just read about ideas but also immerse themselves in them. They will read, interact with simulations and have problems posed to them. The idea is to provide the right kinds of questions at the right level to really optimize what the student needs to learn.”

OpenStax Tutor is a key component of a year-long study designed in partnership with the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) and the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. In a first-of-its-kind collaboration, these groups have initiated a research project aimed specifically at increasing scores in Advanced Placement biology and physics exams. Named Project Equip, this study includes 17 teachers and approximately 900 AP students — all who are using OpenStax Tutor to provide personalized learning experiences and immediate, actionable feedback.

Baraniuk’s ultimate objective is to understand how students learn by investigating the countless individual factors that enhance or impede learning. With Project Equip, the Rice team is helping teachers better understand how their students engage with classroom content, including where they are effectively learning or may need additional support.. “We can involve students in learning activities,” Baraniuk explains. “The data produced by those activities will really help us understand why students are learning in a particular case and why they are not learning in others.” 

To learn more about OpenStax Tutor, and the broader vision for OpenStax programming, contact Kate Rybka Brennan, director of strategy and development, at or 713-348-4484.


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