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The State University of New York system has, with its sister City University of New York, become in many ways the center of the open educational resources universe, thanks in part to its size and in (larger) part to the state Legislature's recent multimillion-dollar investments in OER.

On Wednesday SUNY took another step toward solidifying that role with an agreement extending and expanding its current relationship with Lumen Learning, one of the companies that has embedded itself in the open educational resources space to try to improve the quality and increase the usage of OER-based digital courseware.

Under the terms of the three-year agreement, SUNY will cover the costs for all students to use content provided through Lumen at no charge. (OER content itself is typically free, but platforms like Lumen typically charge a per-student, per-course fee to use the platform through which the content is delivered, which often includes homework and feedback tools and other services that textbook publishers have increasingly wrapped around their textbooks.)

Ensuring that more students in the 64-campus SUNY system have access to low-cost educational materials would certainly be a plus. More than 10,000 of SUNY's roughly 425,000 students used "Lumen-supported" course materials last spring, up 75 percent from the year before.

But perhaps the biggest difference between what SUNY has been doing with Lumen and what the two will be doing going forward is the attempt to build a stronger, systemwide structure to support faculty adoption of OER and the effective use of open materials to help students succeed.

Philosophical support for the use of open educational resources in higher education is widespread; professors and administrators alike agree on the desirability of reducing what students spend on textbooks and other curricular materials to increase affordability, but surveys and usage statistics show that far fewer professors seem willing to change their behavior (adopting OER products over commercial ones, doing the heavy lifting of creating their own courseware, etc.) to bring that shift about.

The major impediments faculty members cite for not using open educational resources tend to revolve around lack of awareness about what open resources are; difficulty finding OER material, which is typically created by individual professors or groups of them and shared in ad hoc ways; and concerns about whether OER material is of comparable (or at least sufficient) quality and vitality, especially in comparison to the feature-rich digital materials that some publishers pair with their textbooks.

The enhanced partnership between SUNY and Lumen aims to make progress on all those fronts, by improving what they call the "systemic infrastructure" underpinning SUNY's use of OER, with a focus on "areas where OER is absent, insufficient or not of high enough quality," as Lumen's co-founder and CEO, Kim Thanos, put it.

Under the agreement, the two will work together to build out the existing catalog of roughly 75 Lumen-wrapped OER courses, collaborating to fill curricular gaps like they are right now in creating materials for Spanish 1 and 2 (with SUNY professors providing the content expertise and Lumen the technical support).

SUNY and Lumen will also "co-invest," Thanos said, in developing the kinds of instructional tools that may once have been considered "ancillary" but are now, in an era marked by intense focus on student success, increasingly essential for faculty members and students alike, like homework platforms and immediate-feedback software.

"Rather than working around the gaps that exist in what is really needed for [OER] to happen at scale, we're identifying those gaps and addressing them together," Thanos said. "We're bringing the resources of SUNY and Lumen together and investing together to get obstacles out of the way for SUNY faculty members."

For the two parties, the goals are overlapping but also distinct. SUNY, like many large public universities and state systems, has strived for years to find ways to use its centralized resources to enable (rather than interfere with) the work of the people on its campuses. The system is under pressure to contain if not lower both what students pay for their educations and what the institutions spend to deliver them. The system is using some of the money it received for OER from the state in 2017 and 2018 to help it do that.

"Open educational resources are a great investment because they not only save students money, but they empower our faculty to regain control over their classroom content, and there is mounting evidence OER can improve learning," said Mark McBride, library senior strategist for the SUNY system. "So if we save students money, empower our faculty and improve the learning experience, it’s a win for everyone."

The three-year deal is a major win for Lumen, since its previous one-year contracts with SUNY (like those it has with more than 200 colleges and universities) have been renewable each year. In addition, its officials hope that a broad structural ecosystem they build for SUNY will be replicable for other major universities and state systems.

"Our hypothesis is that, as we address this for SUNY, we can make this more available to all systems and institutions," Thanos said.

The involvement of for-profit companies like Lumen in the production and distribution of open educational resources remains controversial, since they oftentimes wind up charging students for content that is supposed to be free. Advocates for OER also sometimes worry about whether companies will capture and control student data.

But campus officials typically point out that they don't have the expertise to provide all the services and functionality that an outside company might. And SUNY officials say Lumen, which received a funding boost in December and was founded by OER advocates, has been a generous and collaborative partner.

While OER advocates are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to how the expanded SUNY-Lumen partnership unfolds, one sees much promise in the scope of the arrangement.

"It's significant that we are talking about OER at the enterprise level," said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. "For OER to truly scale, we need to talk about support and sustainability.

"There are lots of pathways to achieving that, and this is one of them. It will be up to each system to decide which pathway makes sense."

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