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From One to Many: OER-based Degree Programs

Several years ago I was speaking about OER at a conference in Virginia. There was a great feeling in the room, and though I hadn’t planned to speak about the topic, I felt prompted to end my remarks by stating that enough OER now existed that an entire degree program could be run on OER. One institution, somewhere, would get to be the first in the world to create an all-OER pathway through a degree program, and I challenged those institutions represented in the room to consider grabbing this particular brass ring.

Within five seconds of the session ending, Daniel DeMarte was introducing himself to me. Daniel, who is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer of Tidewater Community College, declared that he thought Tidewater should be the first college in the world to create an all-OER degree program. He asked if Tidewater and Lumen could work together to make it happen.

That was in September of 2012. Working together with Daniel, faculty lead Linda Williams, and a great team of other faculty and staff, we launched the first-in-the-world “Z Degree” in August of 2013. A fully OER-based pathway through two degrees at Northern Virginia Community College soon followed. Fast forward to fall 2015, and there were Z Degrees either launched or under development at 16 Virginia Community Colleges. Lumen Learning has been privileged to work with them all, and working together with these partners we’ve learned a lot about successfully supporting, sustaining, and scaling this significant change across faculty, staff, administration, and – most importantly – students.

Earlier this morning at its annual conference, Achieving the Dream announced a major competitive grant program that will support the creation of fully OER-based degrees at individual community colleges and in community college systems across the US and Canada. As a result of this program, by fall of 2017 somewhere between 3% and 4% of all community colleges in the US will have at least one all-OER degree program. This kind of year over year growth in the adoption of OER-based degree programs is extremely exciting – first one program, then three, then 16, then 50 – tripling every year since Tidewater’s groundbreaking work in 2012-2013. If we sustain this growth rate, every community college in America will have a fully OER-based degree program by 2020.

I’m humbled and excited by the opportunity to continue supporting this important work. Lumen Learning is the Technical Assistance provider for the grant program, and every school or system that receives a grant will have access to Lumen Learning’s support and services funded by the grant.

Here’s to improving affordability and access for students, pedagogical flexibility and engagement for faculty, and improved outcomes for institutions – and learning lots along the way.

Learn more about the grant program, download the full RFP and program details on the Achieving the Dream website.

Note: This post was also published on David Wiley’s blog, OpenContent.org.

By |February 24th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments|

Personalization in Lumen’s “Next Gen” OER Courseware Pilot

For almost three years Lumen Learning has been helping faculty, departments, and entire degree programs adopt OER in place of expensive commercial textbooks. In addition to saving students enormous amounts of money we’ve helped improve the effectiveness of courses we’ve supported, as we’re demonstrating in publications in peer-reviewed journals co-authored both with faculty from our partner schools and other researchers. We’re making great friendships along the way. It’s been absolutely amazing.

Last year we received one of seven grants from a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation competition to create next generation personalized courseware. We’ve spent the last year working with something like 80 faculty from a dozen colleges across the country co-designing and co-creating three new sets of “courseware” – cohesive, coherent collections of tools and OER (including some great new simulations, whose creation was led by Clark Aldrich, and newly CC licensed video from the BBC) that can completely replace traditional textbooks and other commercial digital products.

As part of this work we’ve been pushing very hard on what “personalized” means, and working with faculty and students to find the most humane, ethical, productive, and effective way to implement “personalization.” A typical high-level approach to personalization might include:

  • building up an internal model of what a student knows and can do,
  • algorithmically interrogating that model, and
  • providing the learner with a unique set of learning experiences based on the system’s analysis of the student model

Our thinking about personalization started here. But as we spoke to faculty and students, and pondered what we heard from them and what we have read in the literature, we began to see several problems with this approach. One in particular stood out:

There is no active role for the learner in this “personalized” experience. These systems reduce all the richness and complexity of deciding what a learner should be doing to – sometimes literally – a “Next” button. As these systems painstakingly work to learn how each student learns, the individual students lose out on the opportunity to learn this for themselves. Continued use of a system like this seems likely creates dependency in learners, as they stop stretching their metacognitive muscles and defer all decisions about what, when, and how long to study to The Machine. This might be good for creating vendor lock-in, but it must be terrible for facilitating lifelong learning. We felt like there had to be a better way. For the last year we’ve been working closely with faculty and students to develop an approach that – if you’ll pardon the play on words – puts the person back in personalization. Or, more correctly, people.

It’s About People

Our approach still involves building up a model of what the student knows, but rather than presenting that model to a system to make decisions on the learner’s behalf, we present a view of the model directly to students and ask them to reflect on where they are and make decisions for themselves using that information. As part of our assessment strategy, which includes a good mix of human graded and machine-graded assessments, students are asked to rate their level of confidence in each of their answers on machine-graded formative and summative assessments.


This confidence information is aggregated and provided to the learner as an explicit, externalized view of their own model of their learning. The system’s model is updated with a combination of confidence level,  right / wrong, and time-to-answer information. Allowing students to compare the system model of where they are to their own internal model of where they are creates a powerful opportunity for reflection and introspection.

We believe very strongly in this “machine provides recommendations, people make decisions” paradigm. Chances are you do, too. Have you ever used the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on the Google homepage?



If you haven’t, here’s how it works. You type in your search query, push the I’m Feeling Lucky button, and – instead of showing you any search results – Google sends you directly to the page it thinks best fulfills your search. Super efficient, right? It cuts down on all the extra time of digging through search results, it compensates for your lack of digital literacy and skill at web searching, etc. I mean, this is Google’s search algorithm we’re talking about, created by an army of PhDs. Of course you’ll trust it to know what you’re looking for better than you trust yourself to find it.

Except you don’t. Very few people do –  fewer than 1% of Google searches use the button. And that’s terrific. We want people developing the range of digital literacies needed to search the web critically and intelligently. We suspect – and will be validating this soon – that the decisions learners make early on based on their inspection of these model data will be “suboptimal.” However, with the right support and coaching they will get better and better at monitoring and directing their own learning, and the person to whom it matters most can effectively personalize things for themselves.

Speaking of support and coaching, we also provide a view of the student model to faculty and provide them with custom tools (and even a range of editable message templates written from varying personalities) for reaching out to students in order to engage them in good old-fashioned conversations about why they’re struggling with the course. We’ve taken this approach specifically because we believe that the future of education should have much more instructor – student interaction than the typical education experience today does, not far less. Students and faculty should be engaged in more relationships of care, encouragement, and inspiration in the future, and not relegated to taking direction from a passionless algorithm.

A Milestone

This week marks a significant milestone for Lumen Learning, as the first groups of students began using the pilot versions of this courseware on Monday. Thousands more will use it for fall semester as classes start around the country. This term we’ll learn more about what’s working and not working by talking to students, talking to faculty, and digging into the data. We’ll have an even more humane, ethical, productive, and effective version of the courseware when we come out of the pilot in Spring term. And an even better version for next Fall. (We’re really big on continuous improvement.)

This stuff is so fun. There’s nothing quite like working with and learning from dozens of smart people with a wide variety of on the ground, in the trenches experience on the teaching and learning side, and being able to bring the results of educational research and the capabilities of technology into that partnership. You never end up making exactly what you planned, but you always end up making something better.

Persuading the White House that When You Buy One, You Should Get (At Least) One

This week a coalition of more than 100 organizations, including Lumen Learning, called on President Obama to take executive action to ensure that publicly funded educational resources are open educational resources.

To my mind this is one of the most blindingly obvious policy changes needed in Washington – on par with other desperately needed changes like campaign finance reform. Rather than re-explain why this is true, I’ll reuse this brief video I made for Open Education Week several years ago. In the video I explain why all publicly funded educational resources should be openly licensed. The video uses research articles as its primary example, but the logic applies to videos, textbooks, curricula, simulations, and all other educational materials created with public funds.

I was very happy to see the Open Education Group’s Review Project included in the letter’s list of evidence for why this policy change should be made. It’s good to know the work we’re doing is making a difference.

If you’d like to join the coalition in support of this effort, you can add your signature to the letter here: oerusa.org