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With OpenStax, book learns you

Open textbook publisher OpenStax is developing algorithm-enhanced digital textbooks that adapt to the user's learning needs.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

Adaptive technologies are already on the rise. Think about how Google learns to show you targeted advertising, Amazon learns how to show you products you might like, or brain training game Fit Brains adjusts to your latest scores. Now, OpenStax -- the non-profit open textbook initiative based at Houston's Rice University, which has provided hundreds of thousands of free textbooks to college students -- wants to apply it to education.

It is developing textbooks for all school age students that will be able to adapt to a student's individual needs.

"The same sort of algorithms that might predict which songs or books you'll like can be used to deliver a personalized experience to every child in a classroom," said OpenStax founder Richard Baraniuk, Rice's Victor E. Cameron Professor of Engineering.

The textbooks will aim to pinpoint areas where its user might need specific help -- say, trigonometry for example -- and offer additional exercises and lessons in that area and related subjects, tailoring lessons so that the individual can learn at his or her own pace. Faster learners would also benefit from this, with more streamlined lessons.

The textbooks would also offer quizzes that re-hash material students have already learned.

"We can improve outcomes in a number of ways," Baraniuk said. "We can help teachers and administrators by tapping into metrics that they already collect -- like which kind of homework and test questions a student tends to get correct or incorrect -- as well as things that only the book would notice -- like which examples a student clicks on, how long she stays on a particular illustration or which sections she goes back to reread."

The team is currently working on applying its algorithms to biology and physics textbooks, with a view towards a broader expansion.

"The technology is already here, in the sense that most of us use it online every day," said OpenStax Managing Director Daniel Williamson. "However, the full potential of this technology has yet to be realised for education. The project will allow us to demonstrate that this technology is effective and can be used in the classroom to improve both students' and teachers' return on effort."

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, anyone?