lumenlearning open content open education

Personalization in Lumen’s “Next Gen” OER Courseware Pilot

For almost three years Lumen Learning has been helping faculty, departments, and entire degree programs adopt OER in place of expensive commercial textbooks. In addition to saving students enormous amounts of money we’ve helped improve the effectiveness of courses we’ve supported, as we’re demonstrating in publications in peer-reviewed journals co-authored both with faculty from our partner schools and other researchers. We’re making great friendships along the way. It’s been absolutely amazing.

Last year we received one of seven grants from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation competition to create next generation personalized courseware. We’ve spent the last year working with something like 80 faculty from a dozen colleges across the country co-designing and co-creating three new sets of “courseware” – cohesive, coherent collections of tools and OER (including some great new simulations, whose creation was led by Clark Aldrich, and newly CC licensed video from the BBC) that can completely replace traditional textbooks and other commercial digital products.

As part of this work we’ve been pushing very hard on what “personalized” means, and working with faculty and students to find the most humane, ethical, productive, and effective way to implement “personalization.” A typical high-level approach to personalization might include:

  • building up an internal model of what a student knows and can do,
  • algorithmically interrogating that model, and
  • providing the learner with a unique set of learning experiences based on the system’s analysis of the student model

Our thinking about personalization started here. But as we spoke to faculty and students, and pondered what we heard from them and what we have read in the literature, we began to see several problems with this approach. One in particular stood out:

There is no active role for the learner in this “personalized” experience. These systems reduce all the richness and complexity of deciding what a learner should be doing to – sometimes literally – a “Next” button. As these systems painstakingly work to learn how each student learns, the individual students lose out on the opportunity to learn this for themselves. Continued use of a system like this seems likely to create dependency in learners, as they stop stretching their metacognitive muscles and defer all decisions about what, when, and how long to study to The Machine. This might be good for creating vendor lock-in, but is probably terrible for facilitating lifelong learning. We felt like there had to be a better way. For the last year we’ve been working closely with faculty and students to develop an approach that – if you’ll pardon the play on words – puts the person back in personalization. Or, more correctly, the people.

It’s About People

Our approach still involves building up a model of what the student knows, but rather than presenting that model to a system to make decisions on the learner’s behalf, we present a view of the model directly to students and ask them to reflect on where they are and make decisions for themselves using that information. As part of our assessment strategy, which includes a good mix of human graded and machine-graded assessments, students are asked to rate their level of confidence in each of their answers on machine-graded formative and summative assessments.


This confidence information is aggregated and provided to the learner as an explicit, externalized view of their own model of their learning. The system’s model is updated with a combination of confidence level,  right / wrong, and time-to-answer information. Allowing students to compare the system model of where they are to their own internal model of where they are creates a powerful opportunity for reflection and introspection. 

We believe very strongly in this “machine provides recommendations, people make decisions” paradigm. Chances are you do, too. Have you ever used the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the Google homepage?



If you haven’t, here’s how it works. You type in your search query, push the I’m Feeling Lucky button, and – instead of showing you any search results – Google sends you directly to the page it thinks best fulfills your search. Super efficient, right? It cuts down on all the extra time of digging through search results, it compensates for your lack of digital literacy and skill at web searching, etc. I mean, this is Google’s search algorithm we’re talking about, created by an army of PhDs. Of course you’ll trust it to know what you’re looking for better than you trust yourself to find it.

Except you don’t. Very few people do –  fewer than 1% of Google searches use the button. And that’s terrific. We want people developing the range of digital literacies needed to search the web critically and intelligently. We suspect – and will be validating this soon – that the decisions learners make early on based on their inspection of these model data will be “suboptimal.” However, with the right support and coaching they will get better and better at monitoring and directing their own learning, until the person to whom it matters most can effectively personalize things for themselves.  

Speaking of support and coaching, we also provide a view of the student model to faculty and provide them with custom tools (and even a range of editable message templates written from varying personalities) for reaching out to students in order to engage them in good old-fashioned conversations about why they’re struggling with the course. We’ve taken this approach specifically because we believe that the future of education should have much more instructor – student interaction than the typical education experience today does, not far less. Students and faculty should be engaged in more relationships of care, encouragement, and inspiration in the future, and not relegated to taking direction from a passionless algorithm.

A Milestone

This week marks a significant milestone for Lumen Learning, as the first groups of students began using the pilot versions of this courseware on Monday. Thousands more will use it for fall semester as classes start around the country. This term we’ll learn more about what’s working and not working by talking to students, talking to faculty, and digging into the data. We’ll have an even more humane, ethical, productive, and effective version of the courseware when we come out of the pilot in Spring term. And an even better version for next Fall. (We’re really big on continuous improvement.)

This stuff is so fun. There’s nothing quite like working with and learning from dozens of smart people with a wide variety of on the ground, in the trenches experience on the teaching and learning side, and being able to bring the results of educational research and the capabilities of technology into that partnership. You never end up making exactly what you planned, but you always end up making something better.

open content open education

Open Pedagogy: The Importance of Getting In the Air

The Parable of the Restrictive Roads

Once upon a time there was a pastoral country of beautiful fields and rolling hills. The simple people there enjoyed a relaxed pace of life, part of which included a good deal of walking.

CC BY photo by Marina del Castell
CC BY photo by Marina del Castell

One day, a young lady announced a remarkable invention. She called it an automobile. The people had never seen anything like it, and everyone was immediately smitten with the speed and comfort of travel it provided. Trucks soon followed these first cars, as did motorcycles, and then four-wheelers. But before long, these remarkable inventions began to take their toll on the country’s beloved landscape.

The people proposed a novel solution to this novel problem. They created “roads.” And with the creation of these roads a new law was made requiring “all the different motorized vehicles to remain upon the roads.” As the roads were built and the law enforced, people were able to simultaneously travel great distances in comfort and enjoy the scenic beauty of their homeland.

CC BY photo by Archangel12
CC BY photo by Archangel12

Decades later, a young man announced another new invention – the airplane. It could fly – opening up countless new possibilities for travel and commerce. However, as the young man began selling his inventions to the excited populace, the government reminded them that the law requires “all the different motorized vehicles to remain upon the roads.” People could buy this “airplane” if they wished, but the law required them to drive it on the road – they would not be allowed to fly them. Of course, a few renegades got their airplanes briefly off the ground, but they were prosecuted swiftly and harshly, and made examples of.

Despite the inventor’s impassioned explanations of the new technology’s incredible potential, and protests by large groups of people, it seemed as if the antiquated law would prevent the new technology’s potential from ever being realized. How would they ever get their planes in the air?

Another Old Law Meets a New Technology

Centuries ago, in response to a new technology called the printing press, copyright laws were created. Among other things, these laws prohibited people from making copies of books and other creative works and distributing those copies.

Centuries later, a new technology was invented called the internet. The internet made it possible to produce copies of creative works and send those copies around the world both instantaneously and for free. These new capabilities enabled completely unimagined possibilities in multiple domains, but immediately the antiquated (and now far overreaching) copyright law reared its head. It looked as if the rules that governed the internet would be the same laws that governed the 500 year old printing press. Internet users would be required to drive their airplanes on the road.

Open Content Meets the Internet

Traditionally copyrighted creative works are “immune” to the incredible capabilities of the internet because what the internet makes technologically possible their copyright makes legally impossible. Long before the internet was a gleam in an engineer’s eye, copyright law had already prohibited much of what the internet would make possible.

CC BY photo by Michael Bentley
CC BY photo by Michael Bentley

However, when creative works are distributed under open licenses that provide people with 5R permissions (like the Creative Commons licenses do), those works becomes “susceptible” to the power of the internet. What the internet makes technologically possible their open licenses make legally possible.

The Importance of Getting In the Air

When an educator makes the choice to adopt traditionally copyrighted textbooks and other materials, they are choosing to drive their airplane on the road. They are choosing to ignore the incredible potential afforded by the internet.

When an educator makes the choice to adopt open educational resources they are choosing an airplane that can actually be flown. They are putting themselves in a position where the entire, unbounded possibility of the internet lies open before them.


Simply adopting open educational resources will not make one’s pedagogy magically change to take advantage of the capabilities of the internet. Adding legal permission to technological capacity only creates possibilities – we must choose to actively take advantage of them. There is nothing about OER adoption that forces innovative teaching practices on educators. Sadly, many of the educators who choose OER end up driving them on the road, anyway.

Open Pedagogy

CC BY photo by anja_johnson
CC BY photo by anja_johnson

“Open pedagogy” is the universe of teaching and learning practices that are possible when you adopt OER but are impossible when you adopt traditionally copyrighted materials. Earlier than infancy, this field is still embryonic in its development. This is largely due to the fact that copyright is so universal in its overreaching that it has become ubiquitous, pervasive, ambient. The restrictions of copyright shackle and direct our behavior as invisibly but constantly as the proverbial water the proverbial fish is incapable of seeing. As I’ve written before:

At it’s core, the question of open pedagogy is “what can I do in the context of open that I couldn’t do before?” This turns out to be terribly difficult, because of the ubiquity (even ambience?) of copyright in our lives. An educator asking the question “what can I do pedagogically if I don’t have to worry about copyright?” is a bit like an aerospace engineer asking, “what could I do in rocket design if I no longer had to worry about gravity?” or a politician asking “what could I do if I no longer had to worry about the party system?” or a researcher asking “what could I do if funding were no longer a constraint?” (Evolving Open Pedagogy)

People continue to confuse free with open because they underconceptualize “open.” In this impoverished view they think the only – or primary – benefit of open educational resources is their impact on affordability. To some degree it’s understandable that people focus on OER’s affordability because each and every time someone adopts OER we immediately see that financial impact. However, I believe the potential impact of open pedagogy on learning is even greater than affordability-through-open’s impact on learning.

The field desperately needs more work focused in this area. Our current collection of examples of open pedagogy, things like Murder, Madness and Mayhem or Project Management for Instructional Designers, is pathetically small. These and a tiny handful of other examples are simultaneously groundbreakingly innovative (compared to current practice) and sadly unimaginative (compared to what could be). Mike Caufield’s work with federated wikis is a more radical example of teaching practices that are possible only in the context of open content. But we need at least 15 – 20 more examples that are as different from current practice as Mike’s fedwiki work is, before we can have a substantive conversation about open pedagogy.

Looking Ahead: Open Pedagogy and OER Adoption

Making progress in open pedagogy is also critically important to winning the long-term OER adoption battle. The current best arguments for OER adoption focus on benefits to students – things like improved academic outcomes and cost savings. But it is faculty who must make the OER adoption choice, often with no incentive more direct than “doing what’s right for students.” Powerful examples of open pedagogy will give faculty a specific, direct, even selfish reason to adopt OER. As faculty come to understand that OER give them orders of magnitude more academic freedom than traditionally copyrighted materials do, we will significantly accelerate the adoption of OER.

This accelerated adoption of OER will, in turn, significantly increase the quality (through open pedagogy) and affordability (through cost savings) of education for learners everywhere. And that is, after all, what we are trying to do.

badges mooc open content open education

My Contribution to Frances Bell’s cMOOC History

Frances Bell has started a Google Doc collecting historical information about cMOOCs. I’m reposting my contributions to the doc (about my own cMOOCs) here on so I can find them again in the future if the Google Doc ever goes away.

Year: 2007
Where: USU, INST 7150, Intro to Open Education
Audience: Those interested in learning more about Open Education Link

Course Design:

  • Students included both formal students earning credit at USU and students from around the world participating for free
  • Students who completed the course and requested a Certificate of Completion received a certificate
  • Course syllabus was presented in a wiki which students could (and did) edit
  • Readings and videos were on the public web
  • Each student maintained a blog where their writing and assignments were posted publicly
  • A course OPML file was used to aggregate all student writing for easy reading in RSS Readers
  • The course wiki included a master list of participants, including names, institution (if any), email address, and blog address
  • Clusters of students created affinity-based sub-groups with mailing lists, etc.

Year: 2009
Where: BYU, IPT 692R, Intro to Open Education
Audience: Those interested in learning more about Open Education Link

Course Design:

  • Students included both formal students earning credit at BYU and students from around the world participating for free
  • Course was designed as a massively multiplayer online game
  • Students had to choose a Character Class to play during the term. Each class specialized in a different area of knowledge (IP and licensing, business models, history and philosophy, etc.) and had a separate Skills Tree (syllabus)
  • Assignments were structured as quests. The first quests could be completed by individuals, but later quests required a range of skills that required different character classes to collaborate.
  • Quests resulted in Experience Points, which translated into player Levels. Levels translated into final grades.
  • An attempt was made to encourage the creation of Guilds (sub-groups of players) that would compete against each other (e.g., on XP earned), but this failed.
  • Readings and videos were on the public web

Year: 2012
Where: BYU, IPT 692R, Intro to Openness in Education
Audience: Those interested in learning more about Open Education Link

Course Design:

  • Students included both formal students earning credit at BYU and students from around the world participating for free
  • Mozilla Open Badges were awarded to students who completed course challenges
  • Badges translated into grades
  • Readings and videos were on the public web
  • Each student maintained a blog where their writing and assignments were posted publicly
  • FeedWordpress was used to centrally aggregate all student writing to an Updates section of the site