Unconventional Wisdom: Richard Baraniuk

Richard Baraniuk in his own words.

illustration by Agata Nowicka
illustration by Agata Nowicka

Richard Baraniuk juggles several significant roles at Rice but is perhaps best known to the larger community as the founder of the nonprofit, open-source publishing platform now known as OpenStax. To date, as part of its mission to improve access to education, OpenStax publishes free, peer-reviewed textbooks for college students. As the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Baraniuk has centered his research on digital signal processing and machine learning, two powerhouse programs within the George R. Brown School of Engineering. An award-winning teacher, scholar and mentor, Baraniuk exudes an energetic curiosity about the way the world works. Why? “It’s 100% because of music.”

Of Manitoba and Music

Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I had a lot of opportunity to explore, whether it was building things with my physicist-engineer brother or going to my other brother’s apartment to listen to new records. I felt really lucky, playing sports and playing music. I played electric guitar in rock bands and planned on having a life, maybe, in music.

A Spark of Curiosity

I got into electronics because I had purchased a very expensive “effects pedal” for my guitar. Once I went in to change the battery, I opened it up and was kind of curious. I unwrapped the circuit board, and I was flabbergasted because even a 14-year-old could tell that the parts in this $100 effects pedal cost about $2. I decided to build my own and jumped headfirst into the world of electronics, building circuits and all kinds of synthesizers, amplifiers, mixers and recording equipment. In 10th grade, I realized that this could be my dream job. I went into electrical engineering 100% because of music and wanting to build musical things.

Mentors Extraordinaire

Douglas Jones ’83, my Ph.D. adviser at the University of Illinois, earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees at Rice. I was Doug’s first Ph.D. student, and what struck me was the unbelievable worldly advice that he would regularly dispense. For every single situation, 

he had great advice. When a faculty position came open at Rice, he encouraged me to apply. Once I accepted the job, he laughed and said, “Now you’re going to learn that the advice I was giving you was not my advice: It was Sidney Burrus’ advice that he gave to me when I was at Rice.” Sidney Burrus ’57 had this way of thinking about the world that people want to pass on. I’ve been highly impacted by fantastic mentors like Don Johnson and Behnaam Aazhang, but I owe everything at Rice to Sidney. When you talk about a teacher, a researcher, a leader, a Renaissance man — that’s Sidney.

Inspired by Bored Students

In the late ’90s, I was teaching a senior-level engineering class, about 20 students, and I got bothered by kids falling asleep in the back of class or not paying attention. I would haul them into office hours and perform informal psychoanalysis to try to figure out why. And when they’d say, “I’m taking engineering because I really love digital photography,” I’d immediately fire back at them. “Do you realize that this material we’re studying explains how JPEG works?” They’d answer, “Really?!” In the next class, they’d be in the front row because they’d made that connection between what excited them and what we were doing in class.

Throwing Out the Book

I wondered how to scale up this idea of making connections between ideas beyond my class of 20 students. How do I reach 20,000 students? In 1999, the standard way was to write a paper textbook. I went to see Sidney, and he laughed, “A paper book? Give me a break! There’s this thing called the internet. Do something modern!” The Connexions project and a bunch of lasting ideas came out of that conversation. To show connections between ideas, a linear ordering of pages in a book wasn’t going to work. We needed a web, a map showing how ideas connect, so webpages and hyperlinks replaced paper. We could make everything open-source licensed so that a community of instructors from around the world could develop and own the book — it’s not my book anymore, it’s the community’s book. The community would make it better every year. And we could make all of this free so everyone could have access forever.

Why Open Source Matters

Along with lots of people, I believe that knowledge should be free. And that means we shouldn’t be tying up ideas and knowledge in proprietary systems. We should be finding ways to share ideas and knowledge to make the world a better place. And if you do pay for a book or some other educational resource, you should be getting something of value for your money. If I’m reading a novel, of course, I should pay for that because somebody put their life into it. But, if we’re talking about a calculus textbook that’s the same as every other calculus textbook, paying $300 doesn’t really make sense.

OpenStax in the Wild

Little did I know that these ideas would actually work, that today OpenStax [formerly Connexions] would be closing in on reaching 20 million students — not only 20 students! One of the neatest things for me was walking through George Bush Intercontinental Airport late one night and seeing an airport staff member studying with an OpenStax book on their break. It was so exciting to see; I took a picture!

DJ Rich

When I interviewed for my faculty job at Rice in spring 1992, I was staying at the Hilton Hotel across from campus. Anywhere I traveled, I had a habit of — as The Replacements song “Left of the Dial” goes — tuning the radio to the left of the dial and ended up on KTRU. I loved it. At Rice, that was where my radio, car radio and stereo radio were set. A few years after arriving, I volunteered and took the 4–7 a.m. shift for a whole semester. There’s something about being totally alone in the studio in the middle of the night and knowing that there might be somebody out there listening. I look back fondly on that experience, and I learned so much about music from KTRU.

— Interview by Schaefer Edwards '13