David Wiley & Lumen Learning: Making OER Mainstream

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 29 November 2019

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Created by Celine Morton (CC BY 2.0)

The prohibitive cost of education in most countries around the world leaves many students with a stark choice: suffer financially, or suffer academically.

Tuition and the prospect of overwhelming student debt are a significant part of the problem. But the spiralling cost of textbooks - outstripping inflation four times over the past ten years - affects every learner, from the Ivy League undergrads to those studying in community colleges.

Students spend exorbitant amounts on course books - sometimes more than the cost of tuition - just to keep up with their classes. It causes significant problems in enrollment, attainment and course completion. And it’s those from low-income households, minority backgrounds and community colleges that feel those issues most.

In 2012, the open educational resources movement had made great strides in trying to redress the balance. Enormous sums of time and money had been invested in creating high-quality educational books, and one of the movement’s leading figures, David Wiley, had established OER could not only slash the cost of education but also improve student learning outcomes.

However, a big question remained unanswered: with such clear benefits, why had educational establishments failed to adopt OER? With the movement hitting something of a brick wall in the United States, David took it upon himself to find out …

The fellow: David Wiley

David Wiley has played a crucial role in the open educational resources movement. He coined the term ‘open content’ in 1998, and wrote and published the Open Content licence for educational resources - a forerunner to Creative Commons licenses.

His work helped establish the essential legal frameworks and licenses that are the foundations of the movement today, and he has spent years persuading institutions of the value of OER, and individuals in those faculties to adopt them.

The use of high-quality open content by course leaders and individual faculties was a positive step forward for the movement. But what happens when those professors move to pastures new? Who hands over the OER baton within the institution or the faculty?

Inevitably, the schools and colleges return to their reliance on traditional textbooks. And with open content primarily ignored in formal education settings, the next phase of David’s work was evident.

“We needed to institutionalise OER,” he says.

The project: Lumen Learning

David established Lumen Learning as a for-profit social enterprise in 2012, alongside co-founder Kim Thanos. The goal was to change the landscape of secondary and postsecondary education by:

  • reducing the cost of textbooks and educational materials
  • re-imagining how OER could improve learning outcomes
  • supporting programmatic adoption of OER and helping institutions transition away from traditional textbooks

“It was time to take the ideas and frameworks we established, and bridge the last-mile gap … to test them in a real-world context,” David explains. “We wanted to make technical support and training available in a similar way that Red Hat did with open source software.

“But, I had a full-time job at Brigham Young University,” he says. “I could only spend a portion of my time working on open education. It wasn’t enough, but I had a family to support. Kim was having similar issues.

“Lumen was taking over our lives, and if it was going to succeed, I had to put everything into it. So, I applied for a Shuttleworth Fellowship.

“I first met Helen and Karien in 2008 at the CC Summit in Sapporo, and we had common friends,” he continues. “I knew the team, we had similar philosophies and goals, and I thought it would be a great fit.”

Foundation funding

When David applied for a Fellowship in 2013, we were excited. Established friendships within movements are incredibly valuable for support, thinking and inspiration, but it’s groundbreaking ideas, big visions and credible plans to advance open, social innovation that attract our investment.

We supported David and Lumen Learning because we felt he could build on and expand on what we already knew was possible with OER. He had already enjoyed demonstrable success in founding the Open High School of Utah and had the potential to scale his work from a single institution to a national level. He also offered a credible plan to achieve his goals.

Within the context of the work and alongside the ultimate goal of reducing the price of an education, David would explore:

  • The creation of a scalable model to help multiple secondary and post-secondary institutions and community colleges transition towards OER.
  • The use of data, research and empirical evidence to prove OER more effective in helping students achieve success through learning
  • The viability of a sustainable, open model in a for-profit setting

Scaling & Success

David - along with Kim and the growing Lumen team - enjoyed considerable and rapid success during his Fellowship period. Initially, the funding went towards platform work and hosting tools, and solutions for many of the problems blocking the adoption of OER in mainstream education settings.

It also supported David as he took the message into institutions and established new partnerships. In the early days of the Fellowship, each institution required a custom-made approach to meet their needs. Lumen curated and packaged the relevant OER that addressed those requirements, and over time a range of efficient processes started to emerge, easing the complicated and challenging nature of the work.

Within a year, Lumen Learning had saved students over a million dollars in textbook costs by engaging 25 new educational customers, including Tidewater Community College. Tidewater introduced the first all-OER ‘Z-degree’ in the US, saving Business Administration degree students nearly $2,500 in textbook expenses.

Of more interest to David and the Foundation was the improvement of student results. “Withdrawal rates decreased in the Z-degree,” he says. “We also saw a significant increase in students completing courses with a C grade or above.”

In his second year as a Fellow, David’s goals included helping 40 institutions move away from expensive textbooks. By the end of the next twelve months, Lumen Learning exceeded its initial aims, supporting 60 customers - including six of the most prominent community colleges in the country - and saving students multiple millions of dollars in the process.

Finding sustainability

From the Foundation’s perspective, David’s Fellowship was a huge success. Previously, we funded the creation, use cases, and impacts of OER. We explored projects working on policy support, service models, and business and sustainability models. With Lumen Learning, we made more progress in those two years than we had in the previous decade.

After spending an entire career fighting for the widespread adoption of open educational resources, David and Lumen were proving its viability. Adoption was scaling nationally, and OER had support from the Obama administration, thanks in part to David’s work. Lumen was successfully servicing the market as a for-profit business, and demand was expediting substantially.

But the rapid achievements of Lumen posed a difficult question. Were we still needed to push this agenda? David had won. Lumen had proved the for-profit model was sustainable, and we felt it didn’t require a third year of funding.

“I disagreed,” smiles David. “We had planned for the funding, and the following period was tough…very challenging. It took about a year to get back to where we were.”

The current state of play

Today, Lumen Learning enjoys continued success. David and the team work with over 200 colleges and universities in the United States. In 2018 they helped over 230,000 students save money and improve their learning outcomes. “We estimate students we served saved over $23 million on textbooks in 2018,” says David. “We’re aiming for $1 billion.”

The organisation now offers teachers and students low-cost, open courseware that allows teachers to tailor work specifically to the individual student’s needs.

Lumen is also helping to change the academic publishing landscape. When one college offers a cheaper, more effective program than its neighbour, it can turn the flow of students. Registrations for courses using OER exceed those in courses that continue to use expensive, traditionally copyrighted materials.

“We noticed a market reaction,” recalls David. “Very quickly, you generate a lot of interest from stakeholders wanting a transition, and momentum starts to build.

“Traditional publishers, who once charged $150-250 or more for a single textbook, are now being pushed to lower their costs.”

The Fellowship … and the future

“It was a great experience,” says David, recalling his memories of the Fellowship. “The funding was generous and it gave me space and time to focus on the work. Without it, Lumen wouldn’t be where it is today.”

“The regular get-togethers were great,” he continues. “Innovative ideas and people in a room, the problem discussions…all sharing complementary ideas. It’s a connection to an amazing network of people.”

And the future of the open education movement that David has been so central in establishing?

“OER is at a similar moment to the free vs. open software debate from 15-20 years ago,” says David. “I think there will be the same kind of split. One side seems to be interested in open for open’s sake - open as the end goal. The other side is interested in open as a means to an end, with the end being the improvement of student learning.”

For Lumen Learning, the future is bright. David, Kim and the team continue to push for policy change and institutional adoption of OER, to improve learning outcomes, dramatically reduce the cost of textbooks, and bring a fresh approach to pedagogy.

David is currently the Education Fellow at Creative Commons and works with the Open Education Group at Brigham Young University. He blogs regularly at opencontent.org and speaks about open education at many events around the world.

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