Of Sunlight, OER, and Lumen

We recently installed solar panels on our home. The benefits of adding them were immediate and obvious – the very first month they were on the roof our electric bill dropped to $9 (the fee required to stay connected to the grid) and we generated more power than we used, pushing the excess back out to the grid. Because I can’t stop thinking about open, I’ve been pondering the relationship between solar power and OER.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking about how to answer several questions I’m often asked. People who don’t work directly with Lumen sometimes have a hard time understanding what we do, and this leads to a range of confused questions like, “What does Lumen do, anyway?”, “How can you sell OER if they’re free?”, and “If OER are free, why would anyone pay you?”

As I’ve continued to think about these two topics, I realize they’re actually closely related. In fact, I believe the simplest way to answer to many questions about Lumen is by analogy. Let me explain…

Sunlight is perhaps the ultimate example of a public good. Both nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, sunlight is available to anyone and everyone for free. Sunlight is highly versatile and can do everything from making your garden grow to melting the snow off your driveway. For years now I’ve been hoping to use solar to power my home – to harness the sunlight so that it consistently and reliably does what I want (i.e., provides electricity to cool my house, run my lights, keep the wifi on, etc.). But in order to get the sunlight to do what I wanted it to, I needed to partner with someone else who had the right combination of expertise and technology.

There were dozens of questions to answer… Things like, what type of panels should I use? What’s the right number of panels to install given the amount of power I need versus what I’m likely to generate? How and where will I mount them? Should I use a system with microinverters on each panel, or one large inverter? How do I integrate the power the panels produce into my home without burning the house down? How do I tie into the grid so you can push excess power there? Does a battery system make sense in my circumstances? If so, how many should I use and what kind? Do I want to be able to live monitor my energy production, or is checking the power bill at the end of the month sufficient? Etc.

You get the idea. Of course, I could have stopped everything else in my life for a few months and learned most of what I needed to know to answer these questions myself. I could probably even have done a passable job with the installation and tying into the house and the grid. But the end product of working with a company who already had the expertise, experience, and knew the relevant technology inside out was far beyond what I could have done myself.

And yes, I paid them – even though sunlight is free.

OER are a lot like sunlight. They’re another prime example of a public good. They are freely available to anyone and everyone. They’re extremely adaptable. And like sunlight, in order to use OER to reliably and predictably meet our goals (improving student outcomes and saving students money), we need to apply a combination of expertise and technology.

Again, there are dozens of questions to answer. Are you trying to replace commercial materials with OER across an entire degree program or in just a single course? Is the primary goal to improve student learning, increase graduation rates, or save students money? How, specifically, do you optimize for each of these outcomes? Are you willing to take a fresh look at your pedagogy? How would renewable assessments work in your discipline? Which OER should you use, and where do you find them? What tools will you use to revise and remix the OER you select? How are students going to access these OER – online or in print? If online, how will you integrate them into your LMS in a sustainable way? If print, how are you going to manage that process? Is this a math or other quantitative course that requires algorithmically generated and graded practice problems? What role would you like automated systems to play in personalizing the learning experience for your students? How can learning analytics help you strengthen your relationship with your students? Based on last semester’s learning results, where and how should you engage in continuous improvement of your OER?

You get the idea. Of course, many faculty could stop everything else they’re doing for a few months and learn much of what they need to know about copyright law and open licensing, instructional design and learning science, open source platforms for revising and remixing, relevant technical standards, statistics and data science, etc., to answer these questions themselves. They could probably even do a reasonable job of pulling it all together. But when faculty collaborate with Lumen, the end products are far better than what they can typically do by themselves.

And yes, institutions pay us – even though OER are free.

I think this analogy between sunlight and OER, and by extension between Lumen and a renewable energy company, works pretty well. Returning the the questions above:

Q. What does Lumen do, anyway?
A. In the same way a solar power company helps people harness sunlight to power their homes, Lumen helps faculty harness OER to power student learning.

Q. How can you sell OER if they’re free?
A. Solar power companies don’t sell sunlight and Lumen doesn’t sell OER. Sunlight and OER are free.

Q. “If OER are free, why would anyone pay you?”
A. We provide expertise and technology that help people make effective use of OER, just like solar power companies provide expertise and technology that help people create electricity from sunlight.

PS. It occurs to me that there may be more to do with this analogy. If we can fruitfully compare OER to sunlight and Lumen to a renewable energy company, should we compare commercial textbooks to oil and traditional publishers to extractive energy companies? Should we compare the broad move away from commercial materials and toward OER-based degrees with the move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy? These are questions for another time.