A New Channel for OER

OER provider Lumen Learning joins with Follett to bring open course content to faculty members through the campus bookstore.

April 18, 2017
 

Open educational resources provider Lumen Learning has a new partner in its effort to get more faculty members to use alternatives to commercial textbooks: the college bookstore.

Lumen, a start-up based in Portland, Ore., said on Monday that it had teamed up with Follett, creating a new channel for its course content to reach more faculty members. Follett operates more than 1,200 physical and 1,600 virtual bookstores, and will feature Lumen’s content alongside commercial educational materials from more than 7,000 publishers.

Additionally, Follett is contributing a “significant” amount to Lumen’s new $3.75 million financing round (the company declined to give a specific figure).

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, the two companies gave slightly different explanations about why the partnership makes sense.

Follett emphasized its “long history of putting students and faculty first,” comparing the partnership with Lumen to its early entries into the textbook rental and “inclusive access” markets.

“It’s important for Follett to put its money where its mouth is,” said Roe J. McFarlane, chief digital officer at Follett Higher Education. “If we care about affordability and accessibility, paying lip service to this is no longer acceptable to the marketplace.”

Follett isn’t “saying OER is going to save the day,” McFarlane continued. But the company has received a “phenomenal amount of feedback” from colleges where faculty members are looking for affordable alternatives to commercial textbooks, he said, and it is making an effort to address those concerns.

“We are saying it is an option for those that want to consider it, and it is a very affordable option,” McFarlane said. “We want to make sure that we have that span of offerings, should they wish to teach with these materials.”

Follett has existing relationships with OER providers, but the partnership with Lumen is the first deal Follett has signed with a provider to offer its OER courseware, McFarland said.

For Lumen, the partnership is an effort to address one of the major issues facing the growth of OER: discoverability. Most faculty members say they would be happy to assign free or low-cost course materials -- as long as they are high quality -- but that they have trouble finding the right content for their classes.

A 2016 survey by the Babson Survey Research Group, for example, found issues related to the availability and discoverability of OER as the top four barriers that faculty members said prevent them from assigning those course materials -- among them, the lack of a comprehensive catalog of OER or colleagues who could point them in the right direction.

Lumen’s catalog includes OER for 78 different courses. Since its launch in 2013, the start-up has gained a greater understanding of why some faculty members use OER and others don’t, said Kim Thanos, founder and CEO of Lumen.

“One of the obstacles is this challenge of how we get OER out of a side path in terms of faculty consideration, review and adoption, and start to move it more into the mainstream process that faculty use to consider and adopt learning resources,” Thanos said. By teaming up with Follett, she added, Lumen is able to put OER in front of many more faculty members by using infrastructure they are already familiar with -- Follett’s platform.

Despite lingering issues around discoverability, open resources have gained traction in higher education -- particularly in high-enrollment general education courses, which have been the focus of many OER initiatives. Many of those initiatives are taking place at the state level. Most recently, politicians in New York reached a budget deal that includes $8 million to expand OER use at the City University of New York and State University of New York systems.

Lumen has also seen growth. So far this academic year, the company has delivered content to more than 100,000 students, which it says adds up to about $10 million in savings compared to if those students had bought commercial textbooks. The company is expecting to generate $10 million in savings this fall alone, suggesting the growth will continue, Thanos said.

Lumen has previously worked by signing contracts with individual colleges and helping them begin OER initiatives on their campuses, charging students a $10-25 “course support fee.” Students will pay the same to access OER through Follett’s platform.

The company will continue to work with colleges and universities, Thanos said. She added, “We’re not looking to do a similar partnership with other bookstore providers,” suggesting the deal with Follett is somewhat of an exclusive one.

The $3.75 million investment more than doubles what Lumen has raised to date. Thanos said the start-up will use the funds to accelerate its own growth.

“This is not a next round leading toward many more rounds,” Thanos said. “We do believe we’re on a nice path toward being financially self-sustaining and being a healthy, growing company.”

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