Of Progress, Problems, and Partnerships

In 2012 Kim Thanos and I founded Lumen Learning because, through our Gates-funded work on the Kaleidoscope Project, we had seen first-hand how hard it was for faculty to replace publisher materials with OER. The 2000s were an inspiring decade as institutions and individuals created and published a huge amount of openly licensed educational materials (e.g., MIT OCW, Wikipedia, Khan Academy), but in 2010 it was difficult to find a faculty member who had made the switch. It seemed like lots of people wanted to publish and share their own OER, but no one wanted to use anyone else’s.

Actually, plenty of faculty wanted to use OER – they just didn’t want to use them badly enough to fight through all the obstacles that involved.

The difficulties faculty had – and still have – adopting OER is a huge problem for several reasons. First, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to save students money. Second, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to facilitate new forms of pedagogy that invigorate both teaching and learning. And third, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to support significant improvements in student learning.

These are the problems Lumen is still chasing today. How can we help as many faculty as possible adopt OER, leading directly to significant student savings? How can we help those faculty who have made the choice to adopt OER wrap their heads around the pedagogical benefits enabled by OER? How can we help faculty and students use OER in ways that will result in improvements in measures like final grade, completion rate, persistence rate, and graduation rate?

It’s been a humbling and amazing experience. We’ve learned some things about working effectively with faculty through the course redesign and OER selection process. About how to carry forward the best work of previous faculty to a new group of faculty so they can stand on the shoulders of those who came before and go much faster. About hosting, managing, and integrating OER into LMSs where faculty and students already are. About license vetting and CC attribution management. About using data to support the continuous improvement of both content and assessments (watch for more on this topic in weeks to come). About the intersection of instructional design, personalization, learner agency, metacognition, and behavioral economics (nudging). About building and running entire degree programs on nothing but OER.

As we’ve learned more we’ve been able to help more. We more than tripled the number of students we supported from 2014 (~10,000 students) to 2015 (~35,000 students), and more than tripled again from 2015 to 2016 (~110,000 students). Across those three years these students saved almost $15 million. Peer-reviewed research has shown, for a range of outcomes, that when we support students using OER they perform the same or better than their peers using publisher materials. (And the most exciting research, looking in much more depth at our Gates-funded work on personalization and OER, is still to come.) And faculty are slowly coming to appreciate the range of novel things (like renewable assignments) that OER adoption enables in their pedagogy. There’s a mountain of work left to do, but it feels like we’re off to a solid start.

But it’s really just a start. While Kim is magically staying the same age, I’m getting older – and neither of us is really interested in running a cool little project that improves things for a small fraction of postsecondary students and faculty. Neither are the other amazing people who’ve found their way to Lumen over the years. (And did I mention we currently have five positions open?) To only lightly edit the language from my original application for the Shuttleworth Fellowship back in 2012:

We want to push the field over the tipping point and create a world where OER are used pervasively throughout schools, colleges, and universities. In our vision of the world, OER supplant traditional textbooks for all courses at all levels. Organizations, faculty, and students at all levels collaborate to create and improve an openly licensed content infrastructure that dramatically reduces the cost of education, increases student success, and supports rapid experimentation and innovation.

I’m keenly aware that this kind of system-level change can’t be facilitated by a single person or a single organization. This scale of change requires collaborative efforts on the part of many, many people and organizations. So what kind of collaboration could move the field meaningfully closer to this vision of a world where OER are the default?

First, what do we know about why OER aren’t already the default? According to the most recent Babson survey of faculty about OER, the biggest obstacles to OER adoption in higher ed are:

  • the majority of faculty don’t know that OER exist, and
  • for the minority who do know about them, OER are too hard to find.

So how do you address that problem at a scale large enough to make a difference?

Today Lumen announced a major new partnership with Follett. Follett operates more than 1,200 local campus bookstores, and they’ve made significant investments in tools, processes, and people to make it easy for faculty to review and adopt course materials. The new partnership will integrate Lumen’s open courseware offerings into Follett’s systems, making them super easy for faculty at about 1/3 of all US higher education institutions to find, review, and adopt. The partnership also adds, for the first time, the option for students to pay Lumen’s course support fee rather than the institution. (Previously our model only allowed institutions to pay these fees, and that has made it difficult for some schools to work with us.) This new option makes it possible for individual faculty to choose to work with Lumen, which hasn’t been possible due to the institutional focus of our model. Now there’s an easy way for everyone to work with Lumen – from an entire institution to a single faculty member. The press release has all the details.

I’m incredibly excited about this partnership because I think it will go a long way toward overcoming the biggest obstacles to OER adoption Babson identified. It should result in millions more students and faculty using OER and enjoying the wide range of benefits they provide. And it will provide a terrifically interesting case study of a new OER adoption model that we haven’t seen or studied before, hopefully inspiring more creative thinking in this space.

“We’ve only just begun,” as the song says. We won’t realize our entire vision by taking this one step, but this one step certainly moves us forward.

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