Taking a Leap of Faith

Exactly a year ago today I published a post about some exciting changes in my professional life. I had just applied for a 12-month unpaid leave of absence from BYU. My goal was to spend the time away focused on supporting and scaling the adoption of open educational resources (OER) in formal education. Specifically, I wanted to help institutions that serve at-risk students – like community colleges – use OER to eliminate textbook costs and improve student success. Kim Thanos and I had formed Lumen Learning in October for exactly this purpose. Then I got the incredible news that I’d received a Shuttleworth Fellowship. And then my leave was approved. Thus began a year of awesomeness.

Institutions and individuals have been creating and sharing OER for over a decade, and millions of people have used these materials in informal settings. As we’ve seen from OCW visitor surveys to MOOC demography, people who seek out free, online, informal learning opportunities tend to be people who already have a significant amount of formal education. And while I’m excited for the additional growth these people are able to achieve, one of my primary interests in OER has always been their capacity to decrease the cost and increase the quality of formal education for at-risk students. In a world of over half a billion OER, why are students still dropping out of community colleges because they can’t afford $170 textbooks?

Because faculty aren’t adopting OER for their classes. Plain and simple.

There are incredible collections of OER (e.g., OpenStax), there are incredible indices of OER supported by rich, professionally curated metadata (e.g., OER Commons), there are even great tools for creating OER mashups (e.g., OpenTapestry). But, in their own way, each of these efforts is underpinned by an “if we build it they will come” philosophy. If we just make the content sufficiently high quality, if we just make it easy enough to find, if we just make it easy enough to remix, faculty will adopt OER in their classrooms. Don’t get me wrong – there are some faculty who have the necessary time, prerequisite skills, and hacker ethic to do it themselves (I would like to believe that I’m one of them). But people with this particular configuration of opportunity, means, and motive are the overwhelming minority of higher education faculty. By the end of 2012 it had become clear that if OER adoption was ever going to happen at any scale, someone needed to get on a plane, go to campus, and train people. So that’s what the Lumen team did in 2012.

It’s grueling, blissful work. The travel is relentless (I flew 99 legs in 2013). Waking up and not being able to remember where you are is depressing. Time away from family is an incredible sacrifice. But along the way I also rediscovered how much I love working with faculty – seeing the excitement on their faces, hearing it in their voices. I had forgotten how rewarding it is. And then you get to hear the stories about the amazing ways students are affected…

Sometimes a half-day meeting with campus leadership and a one and a half day faculty workshop is enough. For bigger schools with a well-staffed Center for Teaching and Learning, some initial training is often all they need. Some schools are even able to take advantage of our open course frameworks without ever working with us directly. And that’s awesome – it’s right in line with our “RedHat for OER” philosophy. The open course frameworks are openly licensed and we don’t – and will never – charge for content. To my mind, every school that adopts OER without working with Lumen is another win for students that didn’t cost me an airplane ride.

But for thousands of smaller schools, a single campus visit and faculty workshop isn’t nearly enough to help them use OER successfully to support student learning. These faculty need ongoing support, both before and during the semester. They need a mix of different kinds of support – technical support, licensing support, and pedagogical support. And it turns out that the particular configuration of training and support that faculty actually need is fairly different from what we had imagined during our early whiteboard sessions. So in addition to traveling nonstop, we’ve also been learning nonstop.

Over this past year it’s become pretty clear why no one was offering this level of support to schools and faculty. It’s HARD! I don’t know if it would be possible to do if you didn’t really love students, love faculty, and believe in the transformative power of education and of open. (Did I mention the Lumen team are incredible?) But it’s paid off – over the last 12 months we’ve made huge progress at expanding OER adoption:

  • In December 2012 we were supporting open education initiatives at eight institutions. Today that number is over 30.
  • In fall semester 2013, Lumen-supported open courses saved students more than $700,000.
  • Preliminary data indicate that pass rates in OER-based courses are at least equal to, and in some cases much higher than, pass rates in courses using expensive publisher textbooks.
  • On campuses where we work, students are asking academic leaders to offer more courses using OER.
  • An exciting pattern is emerging: One conversation about open education leads to a pilot of 1-3 courses using OER, and that pilot then leads to all sections of those courses switching to OER the following semester.
  • Tidewater Community College, who we helped develop a completely OER-based Associates Degree in Business Administration, has just been named a finalist for the prestigious Bellwether Award for that work.

From my perspective down here, on the ground, I can see the momentum around OER adoption growing with my own eyes. It’s actually impacting students’ lives. It’s extremely exciting. And I couldn’t possibly walk away from it – not now that the ball is finally rolling.

I’ve made the incredibly hard decision to leave my full-time, tenured faculty position at BYU. For the foreseeable future, I’m going to focus my professional time and energy on providing on-the-ground support for OER adoptions. I’m so grateful to be able to continue this work with Kim and the rest of the Lumen Learning team – they are simply awesome, and I wouldn’t even be trying without them. And I’m extremely grateful to be able to continue the work with a second year of Fellowship funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation, whose support has been one of the keys to our success.

I’m not leaving academia altogether, however. I’m very excited to have accepted an appointment as Scholar in Residence at the University of Utah, in the Teaching and Learning Technologies group, where I’ll be able to continue the research end of my work on using openness to increase the quality and affordability of education. I’m also hoping to continue my relationship with BYU as an adjunct. These arrangements allow me to achieve the right mix of research and teaching necessary to support the success of my broader OER adoption work. Without the research component, any claims of success in helping faculty use OER effectively would feel like empty hype. And without the ability to teach my Intro to Open Education course occasionally, I can’t evangelize, identify, and prepare the additional people the field of open education needs so desperately. The small number of people in the world with deep expertise in open education just isn’t sufficient to get the job done.

This process of professional reconfiguration has been long, challenging, and invigorating. I decided early on to reject the model of being the professor with a side project who’s never on campus. That’s neither fair to the work, which is so much more than a side project, nor to my students and colleagues, who deserve the full attention of a fulltime person. The question then became, how can I structure my professional life in a way that maximizes my ability to do the work that needs doing? I’m sure that the configuration will continue to evolve, but for now it feels like I’ve found a combination that allows me to be as effective as I possibly can.

All that said, this is a terrifying leap to make. But I continue to feel a deep, abiding sense of responsibility and commitment to this work – a strong sense that there’s more here that needs doing, and that I’m somehow peculiarly prepared to do it. I’m constantly humbled and grateful that I even get to be part of it. These feelings give me the courage to follow the work wherever it leads, terrifying or otherwise. And did I mention how challenging, exciting, and fun it is? Or how much good it feels like we’re accomplishing?

So I’m taking a leap of faith. As Churchill said, “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” We have to do what’s necessary to improve the affordability and quality of education for millions of students. And now, working with the team at Lumen Learning, I will.

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  • hapgood

    Exciting decision. Amazing post.

    Would love to know more about how support needs differed from early intuitions. One of the most fascinating and understudied issues is how we can help people use all this stuff foundations have been funding a decade or more. So glad that’s finally becoming a focus.

  • valhalar

    Dave, Great to see you stepping out. Keep up the good work. I see a bright future for the work you are doing. More and more students recognize the value of open content. Hopefully, more institutions will as well.

  • As always, bold, passionate and giving. A leap well leapt.

  • Anne Leftwich

    I continue to be amazed and inspired by you and your work David. This makes me see the potential of passion and brilliance to make a true difference in education. I hope to take this goal to Indiana university as they strive to incorporate more OER materials and textbooks for their students. This is so exciting!! 🙂

  • doc waters

    DW…as my own OER work moves forward I hope to connect with you in January to help this come to my uni!

    Doc Waters

  • Bryan Tanner

    Your personal life is really inconveniencing my educational life, Dave.First USU, now BYU. You’d better still be teaching Open Ed in the Winter…But seriously, congratulations on taking the leap and living your dreams, etc. The world needs you more than BYU does.

  • Eunbae Lee

    Dear Dave- With your voice always passionate, humble, and dedicated, you inspire many of us. Thank you for all that you do. Cheers to you and your team!

  • stewartmar

    Good for you Dave – tenure can be burden as well as a blessing. I gave it up twice – for slightly different reasons each time – then got it back for a third time a few years before retiring 🙂
    I’ve seen (and been involved in) some wonderful developments in OER in developing contexts (in the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa). But the OER movement needs a lot more passionate individuals such as yourself both inside and outside institutions, and in developing and developed countries. It’s a movement that must succeed 🙂

  • George Veletsianos

    I’m with Anne on this one, David! This is exciting and inspiring, and I’m looking forward to seeing the positive changes that are coming!

  • Jesse Martin

    Wales wants to become the OER capital of the HE world, however, before trying to outproduce everyone else, Wales should begin an initiative to become the HE OER user capital of the world. There is already stuff out there (as you rightly point out). We don’t need to keep endlessly producing OERs that nobody is using, we need to support your efforts to adopt OER materials in our teaching.

  • Mark Curcher

    Truly inspirational David. I think you are brave and yet also in a exciting position, being able to work on the things you are most passionate about. I admire your ability to create a reality that allows you to change the world for the better. I sincerely wish you and the Luman team, the very best of luck as you move forward. I also wonder how people like me can help you scale this internationally?

  • Doug Holton

    Congratulations on your decision – I agree and think you will be able to have a greater impact and more flexibility this way. Let me know if you’d ever like to talk about faculty development with respect to OERs. Your intuitions are right – a single workshop or even a week’s workshop isn’t sufficient to change practices. One study for example found that after several days of workshops on active learning, ~80% of faculty participants later stated that they were doing active learning in their classes (they could talk the talk of active learning), but when observed, less than 25% actually were incorporating any active learning strategies. It takes extensive follow through and consulting, as well as help and support from leadership and administration. And Charles Hendersen has written extensively how we can’t have the attitude of “handing down” new instructional innovations or technologies to professors for them to adopt (build it and they will come) – they have to have ownership in the process. NCAT (National Center for Academic Transformation) and others have found solutions to that problem. I’m a co-PI on a couple of NSF projects at the moment also looking into issues related to faculty adoption of research-based instructional strategies and resources.

  • Tony

    Dave – This is exciting! Not just for you, but for everyone associated now (and soon-to-be) with OER. I look forward to advocating right along with you on OER.

  • Briju Thankachan

    Thank you Dave for sharing your passion with us. We will see the impact around the globe.

  • Michelle Linford

    This is exciting. I love seeing people doing innovative, brave things. Best wishes to you, Dave.

  • After working for the past year on the open textbook initiative here in BC, I see so clearly the gap in OER adoption that you are working hard to fill with Lumen. It is important, difficult, rewarding work. Congratulations….and thank you for the continued inspiration and leadership.

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  • MBali

    Hey David, sounds exciting! we are just starting to raise more awareness about open access, open educational resources, etc., at my institute in Egypt and was wondering if you had worked with universities in the region? Would love to learn from those experiences if you have them. Will be looking more at your blog