This Funder Just Gave $9 Million to Design the Textbooks of Tomorrow

What if high school science textbooks employed the same sort of personalization for students that Amazon uses for shoppers? We’re going to find out, thanks to a $9 million grant from Laura and John Arnold. 

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation just announced it is extending funding for Rice University’s nonprofit textbook publisher OpenStax. The couple have funded the project before, but previously the initiative has focused on creating free (or affordable in print), peer-reviewed college textbooks, mainly as a way to undercut the insanely expensive textbook market and make learning materials more accessible. 

Related: Laura and John Arnold Foundation: Grants for K-12 Education

The new $9 million grant, however, will not only expand the project to K-12 students, it seeks to bring machine learning to the structure of a digital textbook. That means, rather than being a fixed collection of content, the book will respond to each learner’s style and speed. It will track a reader’s behavior and offer additional help in certain areas, for example, or send constructive information to teachers about how their students are digesting information. 

The grant will go to developing proof-of-concept prototype textbooks for AP physics and biology, mostly adapting content from the existing college-level books, and building in new architecture to make the books respond to reader behavior. The team will use the same stringent standards it’s used when creating its first generation of seven college textbooks, but will be working alongside cognitive and machine learning scientists to develop algorithms that can tailor the content to each student.

OpenStax is a nonprofit housed at Rice, and supported by foundations that include William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Related: Next Stop for Laura and John Arnold: Disrupting Higher Ed

LJAF, endowed with wealth from John Arnold’s hedge fund success, gives to education as one of its four focus areas, and prefers projects that seek to create “transformational, not incremental change.” It’s been a major funder of charter schools. 

The concept of high-quality textbooks that are affordable and offer a more tailored learning experience is extremely appealing. And as online and digital tools grow, the traditional text book and its one-size-fits-all approach could start to look a little dusty.

But you also have to imagine a Netflix/Amazon approach to teaching will have its share of detractors. For one, are the algorithms used at online services so beloved and well-honed? And if these methods follow their market-based models, will they use “black box” algorithms, altering the learning experience in an opaque way? It’s hard to think of parents surrendering such control. And then there’s the whole privacy thing.

The Arnolds are always looking to shake things up, though, so it's exactly the kind of project they're eager to fund. It should be very interesting to see what the team at Rice comes up with in the next two years.

See IP's Full Profile of John Arnold