Lumen and Follett: Canary in the Curricular Materials Coal Mine?

Phil wrote up some excellent observations yesterday about the announcement that Follett has invested in Lumen Learning and will be distributing some of their products. This deal has more significance for the curricular materials market than the (relatively) small dollar amount of the investment would indicate.

Before diving into the substance, I want to repeat Phil’s disclosure that we are consultants to Lumen Learning and grantees of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has both given grant money to Lumen and is more generally promoting the idea of courseware. I’ll add that we currently consult for or have recently consulted for three of the five biggest higher education textbook publishers and a major curricular materials distributor (though not Follett). So we are not without our entanglements. The upside is that we get to see the market from a lot of different angles.

As I have written in the past, the textbook publishers have an addiction problem. They can no longer get the profits from printed books that they used to get, thanks to the used book market, textbook rentals, OER, and the general cleverness of students at figuring out ways to avoid paying an arm and a leg for a book that they only expect to need for 15 weeks (if they need it at all). Books are not giving publishers that top-line “high” that they used to. From business perspective, the businesses-formerly-known-as-textbook-publishers want to move to more feature-rich digital products that, they argue, have enough additional utility and impact on student outcomes to justify a premium price.

At the same time, while these companies increasingly make their profits on digital, a lot of their revenues still come from print. They still need their cash “fix” from book sales and are having a difficult time kicking the habit.

As a group, their main response to this dilemma so far has been to offer flat PDFs, nearly flat PDFs through (often kludgy) specialty ebook readers that have extra bits of functionality, loose-leaf binder versions of the book, and/or their own textbook rentals. These are all variations of “here’s the book in the cheapest form we can come up with.” There’s very little about most of their low-end offerings that takes advantage of digital affordances.

Many of the publishers are deeply conflicted about this strategy and haven’t figured out how to sell their lower-cost offerings in a way that is not utterly confusing to students.(Some of the publishers are more coherent than others, but this has been the overall pattern so far.) As Phil has reported, this mess of unclear options appears to disproportionately harm those students who need the pricing break the most.

Now along comes Lumen Learning. They don’t have sixty-seven versions of the same title running through forty-three different distribution channels. Their pricing is simple, clear, and competitive with the low-end products. The product’s interactivity is designed in from the beginning rather than grafted on as an afterthought. It also lends itself to customization by the instructors in ways that the bargain basement offerings from the publishers often don’t. And it introduces faculty to the “five Rs” of OER (retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute).

That’s not new. What’s new is that Follett—a company that runs thousands of physical and virtual college book stores—is investing in Lumen and promoting their offering. While the distributor has very carefully calibrated their public statements, the fact is that they are no longer fully neutral. They are giving OER a big boost in visibility to the faculty who select the curricular materials and ease of acquisition to the students who use them.

I don’t have a lot of insight into what’s driving Follett to make this move beyond their statement that faculty are asking for easy-to-adopt OER options. But one possibility is that the publishers are increasingly disinclined to sell their premium digital products through the bookstore. If students have to go to a web site to purchase the product anyway, why pay an intermediary? Why not just have the students buy direct from the publisher? To the degree that publishers are beginning to see distributors less as allies and more as competitors, then companies like Follett will have an increasing interest in promoting alternatives that they can continue to sell, even if at a lower price.

We’ve seen lots and lots and lots of failed attempts to “disrupt” the textbook publishers. This feels different. I’m not suggesting that Lumen will put Pearson and the others out of business. Rather, this investment and distribution deal is a sign that the textbook publishing industry, which has improbably managed to maintain its balance on a knife-edge for a long time, may finally be entering a period of rapid change that will, in turn, shape the choices that students and teachers have in unpredictable ways.

This could also impact the open education community in unpredictable ways. When Phil and I gave a joint keynote at the OpenEd conference in 2015, two of the questions we asked were the following:

  • What are your goals for embracing open education?
  • Who are you willing to let win in order to achieve your goals?

If the goal is to increase student access through lower and more transparent pricing, then this deal could help. If the goal is to promote awareness of the “five Rs” that could ultimately lead to wider adoption of open educational practices, then this deal could also be helpful (though probably less immediately impactful than it will be on cost). If, on the other hand, the goal is to drive all large commercial interests out of education, then this deal will not be helpful.

The open education community is not unified around goals and priorities. It will be interesting to see how various participants react to the commercial success of Lumen (and, for that matter, OpenStax).

Interesting times.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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4 Responses to Lumen and Follett: Canary in the Curricular Materials Coal Mine?

  1. Pingback: Lumen and Follett: Canary in the Curricular Materials Coal Mine? | EDUMIO.com

  2. Patrick Masson says:

    Recently I was pinged by a few folks about the recent news of Lumen Learning’s partnership with Follett, and whether this might be a form of open-washing. Some even asked if selling access to OER is in line with the open ethos. To be honest, until I was asked directly, I was not really tracking Lumen or their work. I’ve read a few of the e-Literate posts, and the various references that those pointed to, as well as some of the responses by others (Downes, McGuire).

    From what I can gather, it looks like Follett will be distributing “OER course materials” developed by Lumen. I also am under the impression that these course materials include services and systems developed by Lumen and/or Follet to manage the OER content, various activities and even institutional administration (e.g. “content and courseware…an affordable OER solution that’s easily integrated and administered within the institution infrastructure”).

    Again from what I’ve heard, the issue for folks is whether it is appropriate for Follett to charge students/universities–and does this constitute “open-washing”. (I’ve commented quite a bit on both open-washing and fauxpen source: https://opensource.com/business/14/12/openwashing-more-prevalent.) My interpretation is that the OER content that Lumen has developed, and which will be distributed through Follett, carries a Creative Commons license. Thus this content is, and will always be, “open” in terms of ensuring user freedom. The fact that this content is available through a for-fee platform is not an issue and would not constitute open-washing. For me this is analogous to a faculty member adding OER content to their Blackboard course, or a university charging tuition to students. In both cases, the OER (as an object) is open because it carries a CC-BY or CC-BY-SA license (note if it had a “non-commercial” or “no derivatives” provision, I would not call it open). If the university charged to access the proprietary software, Blackboard, Coursera, Moodle, etc. through tuition, it does not affect the original license of the OER content.

    Specific to selling openly licensed resources (e.g. OER or open source software), both the Open Source Initiative and Free Software Foundation encourage it. In fact the Open Source Definition’s first requirement is Free Redistribution: The license shall not restrict any party from *selling* or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale. Other references from the OSI include: “Can I sell Open Source programs? Even if I haven’t written it?” (https://opensource.org/faq#selling); “Can Open Source software be used for commercial purposes?” (https://opensource.org/faq#commercial); “How do I make money if anybody can sell my code?” (https://opensource.org/faq#profit). The FSF also approves of selling FOSS, “we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If a license does not permit users to make copies and sell them, it is a nonfree license.” (https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html).”

    Red Hat “sells” Linux (Fedora) and includes in their bundled services all sorts of tools and utilities that makes deployment and management of Linux *easier* for institutions, again just as stated in the press release, “easily integrated and administered within the institution infrastructure”. This does not mean that Linux/Fedora is not open source, nor does it mean that Red Hat is engaged in open-washing. What institutions are paying for are the additional suite of services. I can always go out and get Fedora all on my own.

    Even when a fee is charged, with authentically open resources (code, content, etc.), I would also expect that a student/user could acquire the original OER content via another source. That is, if I did not want to pay tuition, or pay to access the course, I could find the same OER content offered within that course, independently though another distributor. If I could not, then the license assigned to the work by the original copyright holder that allows free redistribution has been violated. Apparently, according to Phil Hill, “the answer on whether non-paying students are denied access is no, all the underlying OER is free and publicly available” (http://mfeldstein.com/notes-lumen-learnings-3-75-million-funding-round-led-follett/).

    That said, while I would not assign open-washing to Lumen Learning–as it appears they are simply making their legitimately open content available to anyone who wants to use it–I would want to better understand how Follett is communicating their services. If they are communicating that their platform or services are “open” simply because they now include some open content, then I would think they are deceiving folks through open-washing. I would also say, if Lumen was touting their software platform/services–beyond the OER content distributed with an open license–for example, their Candela, Waymaker, OHM as “open” simply because it delivers OER, then I would say that too is open-washing (please now, I have *not* heard this from Lumen, or from anyone criticizing the recent Lumen/Follett partnership).

    I have been critical of Instructure for open-washing related to their open-core business model, i.e. the ambiguity/confusion over the core Canvas project (which is distributed with an approved open source license) and the add-ons and multitenancy tools that are not.

    Finally, on this point, I would add that there is a difference in my mind between OER and open education. For me, OER is only one aspect of open education. As the readers of e-Literate know far better than I, open education is broader than OER and includes not only openly licensed content, but also open access to that content and the teaching and learning where it is used: meaning no tuition dollars to take the course, no pre-req.s, no fees to access required resources, the students’ original content is openly licensed for reuse, etc. Some might even say that all the software should be open source and that the course should use open pedagogies. I do not think anyone is claiming that the Lumen platform or the Lumen Follett partnership is “open education,” but if there were messaging making those claims, that would be an example of open-washing.

    From reading some of the comments from those critisizing the Lumen / Follett partnership (and I might have it all wrong), it looks like there may be some conflation between content and platform (the LMS or the third party services integrated with the LMS). If we are simply talking about the content, it does not matter where the works are published, accessed, used, managed, the
    license is the only consideration. Running GIMP (open source software) on Windows does not mean GIMP is no longer open source. If however, someone told you their operating system (Windows) was now open source because they installed GIMP and LibreOffice on it, well that would be bonkers.

    There is an excellent exchange on the Educause Openness forum where this distinction is highlighted (http://listserv.educause.edu/scripts/wa.exeA2=ind1206&L=OPENNESS&D=0&P=1883). If folks are interested (and maybe have the time), click through the thread as there is some great commentary by folks like Wayne Macintosh, Ellen Marie Murphy, and Cable Green.

    Hope this helps. I’m sorry it turned into a novel, and I hope I touched on / understood the topics folks were actually discussing.

    Patrick

  3. Pingback: OER en commercie, strange bedfellows? | Open Education

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