Rice builds body of knowledge

A Rice University faculty member has created a system for the free online publication and exchange of curriculum material and other educational research on a vast range of topics–from engineering, to music, to technology literacy and more.

Members of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) say they plan to use this resource to solicit and store peer-reviewed articles on educational leadership in one single, easy-to-find place that is freely accessible–thereby meeting what they say is a huge need.

“Our profession–education leadership–has been struggling for a couple decades to assemble everything we know about principal and superintendent prep programs in one place, where folks could look at the entire knowledge base,” said Ted Creighton, NCPEA’s executive director. That task has been made even more difficult, he said, given that materials often are scattered across different media–in textbooks, journals, and other areas.

Not only will the Rice University project, called Connexions, allow NCPEA to collect and store this information in a single place, Creighton said, it also will help the group encourage practicing school administrators to contribute to this body of work. “From the perspective of practitioners, there’s little in the knowledge base written by principals and superintendents,” he explained. “We can pretty much count the contributors, perhaps less than 100 people. That doesn’t make sense to us–principals have things to say, everybody has expertise to contribute to the pile of knowledge.” With Connexions, he said, principals and other executive-level administrators now have a place where they can go to submit research and to read what their colleagues are saying about a particular topic of schooling.

“This Connexions medium began to make sense to us, [and we thought] if we can make it attractive for people to contribute, we can get contributions from everyone,” said Creighton.

The NCPEA initiative is just one of many uses for Connexions, which is “an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the web,” the project’s web site explains.

The site’s open license allows for free use and reuse of all content.

Richard Baraniuk, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University, started the Connexions project in 1999. His intent was to corral the department’s entire engineering curriculum, storing it in one centralized location where students could access it free of charge.

Today the site is free to users and educators in any discipline, and users do not have to be members of the Connexions site or have an account to search the database. Though the project is intended as a resource for students and instructors, anyone with an interest in learning more about a particular subject area can search the database and use the information in it.

Connexions’ Content Commons boasts a wide array of educational materials intended for a variety of users–from children, to college students, to professionals. Materials are organized into small “modules,” or “knowledge chunks,” that are connected to larger “courses,” or collections of modules.

All Connexions authors maintain individual copyrights to their works. Another benefit of the online system: It enables authors to change and edit their documents as they deem necessary.

“With Connexions, the author can check a piece out, change it, update it, and immediately publish it back into the database,” explained Creighton, who said he is working with NCPEA state affiliates to generate interest in the educational leadership publishing project.

“One of my tasks is to get the word out that we’re seeking submissions,” he said. The group has established a peer-review process for ensuring that materials submitted to Connexions on educational leadership are of high quality. Each NCPEA member-reviewed article contains a logo and a note at the beginning telling readers that it has been peer-reviewed.

The peer-review process is not mandatory but is a way to recognize authors and let readers know the information in an article is valid, said Creighton. If authors submit their works through NCPEA, the organization acts as a “filter.”

“We look at all of this information, and we’ll determine if it’s really about leadership, if it’s scholarly, and if it’s helpful,” he said. “We’ll put our stamp on it.”

The process begins when an author sends an eMail submission to Creighton, or other NCPEA staff members, asking them to review the article for Connexions. The reviewer then looks at the article and sends it out to two or three other reviewers, who are assigned to look over articles on a particular topic. Then, after the reviewers have read the article, they send it back to Creighton, who forwards it on to the author with any comments and suggested revisions. The author addresses these changes, sends the article back to Creighton, and he uploads it to Connexions for publication.

Creighton said having a peer-review system should help professors and other educators share their knowledge, while at the same time getting credit for their work.

“We fully know that professors are not going to write if it doesn’t give them credit for their tenure process,” he said. “We hope [the peer-review process] will let people see that a professor wrote an article, it was reviewed, the author made revisions based on comments, and then he republished it. Because otherwise, professors won’t write if they don’t get credit for it.”

Creighton said a critical component of the submission process is developing keywords to accompany each article.

“I’m working with one author right now, and I told him the more keywords he can come up with, the better–even if he gives me 100,” Creighton said. “Then, when you go in and … you don’t [type in] ‘leadership,’ but you [type in] ‘change process,’ [the article] will come up.”

Despite the innovation and convenience that comes with an online submission process, he said, not all educators are fans of the idea.

“There’s a bit of resistance coming from what I consider to be the old guard–the professors who are not really tech-savvy, who still think they have to have a hard copy of everything, and who think it has to be peer-reviewed by 16 people,” said Creighton, who added, “Our response is, ‘What problem do you have with us giving knowledge away?'”

Laura Ascione

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