Sunday, June 12, 2016

For-Profit Involvement in OER - Part 3

I’m very grateful that Dr. David Wiley posted a comment on my previous post and shared some observations. I have much admiration for the work that he’s done. I think our  differences are not nearly as numerous as the things we share in common.  Any criticisms I make are made in an attempt to achieve what’s best for students, faculty and educational institutions.

Dr. Wiley observed that my tone in the last post was critical and that bewildered him. I think his observation is accurate but I’m not sure why me being critical of Lumen’s method of delivering OER is so bewildering. Is it bewildering that someone else could have a different way of addressing the problems that Dr. Wiley described having experienced in Lumen’s first foray with OER adoption ? Is there a different way of using OER that doesn't involve passing money from community college students or those that pay for the books of community college students to Lumen investors.

Dr. Wiley incorrectly said “You say that "instead of addressing those problems" we started working with institutions and charging them for our services.” What I actually said was “So, instead of addressing those problems Lumen did the next best thing that also just happens to offer a ROI for investors of Lumen.” It’s the ownership structure of Lumen that I’m questioning. (Note the titles of this series of posts.) And more importantly, how did the ownership structure of Lumen influence the choice of OER delivery methods that Lumen developed? Lumen encountered problems using just one LMS to connect faculty and students with OER; could those problems have been solved differently if Lumen were a non-profit instead of a for-profit?

In my opinion, the Lumen way of implementing OER does not create the best value for the students or the owners of most community colleges, the taxpaying public. Nor do I think the Lumen method of implementing OER creates the best value for the faculty of community colleges. Implementing OER using LMSs like Lumen purportedly did initially is the better way, IMO.

That Lumen ran into some difficulties implementing LMSs is not surprising; it’s very complex work; it is very labor intensive and is not the kind of work that outside investors get excited about. For-profit investors would rather have an interest in something that can be sold again and again and involves as little labor as possible. Lumen’s solution for implementing OER looks more like a way to maximize return on investment for Lumen than a way to maximize savings for community college students.

I think For-profit companies that operate in the public education ‘sector’ have a special requirement to be as transparent as possible. Lumen’s announcement about their deal with SUNY and Dr. Wiley’s explanations since are not as transparent as they could be, IMO. My questions about why Lumen uses LTI from their platform to connect to LMSs was not about not understanding LTI;  it was about seeking transparency from Lumen and Dr. Wiley.  My thoughts on how best to implement OER differ from Dr. Wiley’s, I think, not because the bulk of my time in the last 20 years, at least, was spent in K12, but because I’m coming at it from the perspective of an independent contractor providing service to institutions, most of them governmental or other non-profits, rather than as the founder of a for-profit company. Implementing OER doesn’t fit well with for-profit software start-up modeling.

Experience in implementing systems in community colleges suggests that they are more like K12 public school districts than they are like major R1 universities, and they are significantly different than private liberal arts institutions of higher ed. Experience with software companies that link to LMSs via LTI in addition to the work for a major textbook publisher advising their IT team as to best practices using an open source LMS to deliver open source textbooks inform the notion that using an LMS is the most practical way to implement OER.  But, again, that may not be the same experience as the folks at Lumen, a for-profit software company.

Lumen’s ‘solution’ to the problem of how to most effectively provide OER in community colleges is problematic because it appears to introduce yet another LMS-like system that while being open source is not widely understood by either faculty or IT support staff. There is more to learn about how Lumen’s platform actually works, but Dr. Wiley failed to address my previous question of where to find documentation for their system, and he failed to specifically identify the faculty and community college support staff network of expertise with the Lumen platform.

Another problem with the Lumen method is the fee structure. Lumen’s fee structure appears to be per student use of OER, but that’s not clear from their website; it might be per student enrolled at the institution.  Fee structures of software companies selling to educational institutions are often ‘negotiable.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. The pay I receive from institutions for curating OER, faculty professional development and support, analytics and effectiveness research, and strategic and change management consulting for academic leadership is all negotiable, too.  I don’t work on a per student basis, though, and I advise institutions to avoid service provision on a per student basis whenever possible. Further discussions of professional service fee structures, approaches to checks of OER licensing and attribution, and the best type of org structure for supporting OER are in our future, I think. Stayed tuned.


  1. Your criticism of Lumen's approach makes much more sense now that I understand that you are selling a competing model of OER adoption to institutions. When you say, "Lumen's solution to the problem of how to most effectively provide OER in community colleges is problematic," in addition to providing an honest critique you're positioning against a competitor. That makes sense.

    You and I - and others - can argue endlessly on blogs about which approach to supporting OER adoption at community colleges adds the most value. However, this kind of argument is academic in the very worst sense of the word. "Which of the dozens of possible models is superior?" is an empirical question that can only be answered (meaningfully) by the community colleges themselves. They will each declare which model they find the most valuable when they decide who to partner with. (And if no model adds sufficient value, they won't partner with anyone).

    This is the point where I'm supposed to write "may the best model win" and exit with a flourish and bow, but there's more to say.

    Community colleges differ widely from each other, and a model that adds significant value at one institution may prove counterproductive at another. If every student at every community college is going to be using OER instead of traditional publisher materials in the near future, the field needs many models that differ from each other in important ways. By making your specific set of OER adoption services available in the market, you increase the diversity of the OER ecosystem - which is critically important to its viability and sustainability (as I wrote about a few weeks ago - I'm genuinely glad you're doing what you're doing.

    Since you keep returning to organizational structure, let's take that as an example of the way two approaches might vary from one another. You view Lumen's for-profit status negatively, which is entirely your prerogative. However, our experience talking with senior academic leaders has been that for every leader that hesitates to partner with a for-profit entity on principle (because they're a for-profit), there are more leaders who hesitate to partner with a non-profit entity on principle (because they struggle so much with sustainability). In other words, we have found that being a for-profit creates more opportunities to support OER adoption than being a non-profit would. And while we do occasionally find institutions with strong feelings one way or the other, the truth is that most could care less how we are organized. Most institutions' main concern is whether or not we're going to effectively support scaled OER adoption at their institution.

    PS. As for locating the available documentation for Lumen's various open source tools, see the individual tools' Github links in my previous post. And to find out who Lumen's support staff are, see our Team page - It's missing a few people, but will still give you a good sense of who we are.

  2. I am really intrigued by this comment from David, which I don't disagree with at all: "And while we do occasionally find institutions with strong feelings one way or the other, the truth is that most could care less how we are organized." I wonder what that is about. Is it because the for-profit/non-profit distinction doesn't matter to institutions (I'm particularly interested in public ones), or is this due to lack of time? lack of understanding of the distinctions? lack of good non-profit pathways? Earnestly interested in this, since I agree with David, but am somewhat alarmed at the way that so many partnerships around EdTech seem to built around services and products without much critical conversation about how the funding paths we choose could ultimately shape the services and products we can access over time. This is not at all an argument against for-profit companies involved in OER, but more an observation, and a question to public institutions about what kind of analyses we have done to reflect on this.