Some Notes On Lumen Learning’s $3.75 million Funding Round Led By Follett

Today’s biggest ed tech news was Lumen Learning – co-founded by David Wiley and Kim Thanos and focused on getting deeper adoption of OER in higher education – and their new round of funding. And this news goes beyond pure investment, as Follett, the large campus retailer that “serve[s] over half of the students in the United States, and work with 80,000 schools as a leading provider of education technology, services and print and digital content”, led the funding round.

First up a disclosure: Lumen Learning is a client of MindWires (the consulting side of e-Literate, or our capitalistic alter ego), and we have had a consulting relationship with Lumen for almost 18 months. We mostly don’t blog about our consulting work, and I do not plan to describe our advice to them, but we are not neutral observers on this one.

As described in the press release:

Follett will offer Lumen Learning’s OER solutions to more than 1,200 colleges and universities where Follett manages course materials delivery. Given Follett’s ongoing mission to improve access and affordability for students, the company has invested in Lumen Learning to help fund future growth and expansion of OER courseware.

As for the funding summary, GeekWire stated:

Follett, which manages course materials delivery for more than 1,200 college and universities, participated in the Series A round, as did previous investors Portland Seed Fund and Seattle-based Alliance of Angels. Total funding for the 5-year-old company is $6.3 million to date. [snip]

Lumen Learning was previously a grantee in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenge and Next Generation Courseware Challenge programs. The company employs 28 people.

Additional disclosure: BMGF has provided grants for our work on e-Literate TV.

The Problem to be Solved

To get a philosophical sense of the purpose of the company and why Lumen does what it does, David Wiley’s blog post provides a great summary (and yes, I’m quoting extensively from his post – but he made his blog CC-BY licensed, so my lawyers said it’s OK).

[In 2010] It seemed like lots of people wanted to publish and share their own OER, but no one wanted to use anyone else’s.

Actually, plenty of faculty wanted to use OER – they just didn’t want to use them badly enough to fight through all the obstacles that involved.

The difficulties faculty had – and still have – adopting OER is a huge problem for several reasons. First, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to save students money. Second, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to facilitate new forms of pedagogy that invigorate both teaching and learning. And third, when faculty don’t adopt OER there’s no opportunity for OER to support significant improvements in student learning.

Where does the Follett strategic partnership fit in? David writes:

According to the most recent Babson survey of faculty about OER, the biggest obstacles to OER adoption in higher ed are:

  • the majority of faculty don’t know that OER exist, and
  • for the minority who do know about them, OER are too hard to find.

So how do you address that problem at a scale large enough to make a difference?

Today Lumen announced a major new partnership with Follett. Follett operates more than 1,200 local campus bookstores, and they’ve made significant investments in tools, processes, and people to make it easy for faculty to review and adopt course materials. The new partnership will integrate Lumen’s open courseware offerings into Follett’s systems, making them super easy for faculty at about 1/3 of all US higher education institutions to find, review, and adopt. The partnership also adds, for the first time, the option for students to pay Lumen’s course support fee rather than the institution. (Previously our model only allowed institutions to pay these fees, and that has made it difficult for some schools to work with us.) This new option makes it possible for individual faculty to choose to work with Lumen, which hasn’t been possible due to the institutional focus of our model.

Paying for OER

There has been an interesting but abbreviated conversation online between David Wiley and Stephen Downes on this news, and I suspect that the topic touches on an issue that others are questioning – wrapping paid features and services around OER. Stephen:

I ask: what if students don’t want to pay money for these ‘open’ educational resources? Are they denied access? Isn’t this exactly one of those closed marketplaces people said would never happen? This is why I defend the use of the non-commercial clause in open educational resources.

David wrote a blog post in reply:

The Follett partnership is focused on two of Lumen’s offerings – Waymaker and OHM (Online Homework Manager). Both of these products wrap significant additional functionality around OER. Waymaker is Lumen’s platform for personalized learning. It wraps pre-assessments, in situ formative assessments, and summative assessments around OER. Waymaker provides each student a data-driven study plan that helps them understand where they are in their mastery of course concepts and how to best allocate their study time. Faculty also have access to a range of tools that make it easy to identify and reach out to students who are struggling while there is still time to do something. Similarly, OHM is a system for creating, managing, remixing, and delivering automatically generated and automatically graded homework problems in math and other quantitative disciplines. Like Waymaker, OHM wraps these and other features around OER.

Therefore, David’s answer on whether non-paying students are denied access is no, all the underlying OER is free and publicly available. He also answered the question about closed marketplace enclosures as no.

I have seen no additional comment from Stephen, which is unfortunate, as I think this abbreviated conversation and the issues it raises are important. I hope that we see more discussion in the OER community – maybe tomorrow.

Some Additional Notes

  • Given my ongoing coverage about the actual level of student expenditures on course materials compared to artificial budgeting numbers (if you want to help students, you need to improve their actual condition and not just claim hypothetical numbers), it was heartwarming to see Seattle Business Journal mention real expenditures in their article:

Students using the Lumen coursework through Follett’s products pay support fees between $10 and $25. According to the National Association of College Stores, students in spring 2016 spent $279 on average for course materials.

  • Lumen Learning’s model cannot be understood if viewed only based on simple costs of textbooks. Whether you agree with them or not, it is important to see the broader view of OER as referenced further in David’s blog post mentioned above [emphasis added]:

These are the problems Lumen is still chasing today. How can we help as many faculty as possible adopt OER, leading directly to significant student savings? How can we help those faculty who have made the choice to adopt OER wrap their heads around the pedagogical benefits enabled by OER? How can we help faculty and students use OER in ways that will result in improvements in measures like final grade, completion rate, persistence rate, and graduation rate?

Open Educational Resources (OER) in higher education have the potential to triple in use as primary courseware over the next five years, from 4 percent to 12 percent, according to a survey of more than 500 faculty by Cengage Learning. In addition, the use of OER for supplemental learning materials may nearly quadruple in size, from 5 percent to 19 percent.

OER has not entered the mainstream yet, and as it does become more widely adopted, we should not expect the form of solution to remain the same. The majority of discussion around OER positions them as free textbook replacements, but that does not mean this solution will or should be the one we are talking about in 5 years. Lumen Learning is making a bet that they are addressing the barriers to usage of OER and creating a new solution that better addresses faculty and student needs. And guess what – so are many of the traditional publishers. It’s just that they’re attacking the problem from very different perspectives.

  • Congratulations to the entire Lumen Learning team for the new investment. And congratulations to Follett on your new strategic partner.
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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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5 Responses to Some Notes On Lumen Learning’s $3.75 million Funding Round Led By Follett

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