EdSurge
EdSurge

Lumen Scores $3.75M — and OER Gets a Foot in the Traditional Publishing Door

Lumen Scores $3.75M — and OER Gets a Foot in the Traditional Publishing Door

Open Educational Resources (OER) have yet to cozy up with the more orthodox academics and pushy print publishers of the world. Advocates praise their accessible low-prices and ability to meet students on digital devices. But skeptics hold that the quality of digital course materials don’t stand up to that of the Pearson’s and McGraw Hill’s of the world.

But the polarizing camps might be coming together. The most recent example occurred this week, when OER company Lumen Learning announced a partnership with one of the country’s largest textbook distributors, Follet Corporation.

To make things official, Follett is also throwing some cash at their new partner, joining previous Lumen investors (including Portland Seed Fund and Seattle's Alliance of Angels) to contribute in the Portland, Ore.-based company’s $3.75 million Series A funding round.

“This is where we see courseware going,” Roe McFarlane, chief digital officer for Follett Higher Education, tells EdSurge.

OERs like e-texts and other pricey print-alternatives already exist on Follett’s virtual warehouse of course materials, but what makes this deal different is that Lumen is the first OER company that Follett has put an equity stake in.

“There’s a degree of legitimacy in Lumen’s offering. David Wiley [CEO at Lumen] is the godfather of OER, and he has really been driving the textbook affordability challenge for years,” says McFarlane.

In particular, a big attraction for Westchester, Ill.-based Follett was Waymaker, Lumen’s adaptive and personalized online courseware product, which costs $25 per student. Of all of Follett’s revenue coming from digital products, McFarlane says only about 2 percent comes from e-text purchases, while the other 98 percent largely goes towards full courseware products. “That’s where the Waymaker product is positioned,” says McFarlane.

In addition to the money supports, partnering with Follett will increase Lumen’s distribution reach by nearly a ten-fold. On its own, the OER company partners with nearly 150 campuses. Through Follett, Lumen will have access to more than 1,200 college and university bookstores, plus around 1,600 online campus stores.

“We started talking with Follett almost a year ago, trying to understand what we were both seeing in the market,” says Lumen CEO and co-founder Kim Thanos. “There was a lot of commonality in the way we were viewing what was changing and how we wanted to support that. It seemed logical to be better aligned.”

Thanos sees two main objectives for the partnership. First, expanding discovery and use of OER among higher-ed institutions, which she and McFarlane believe will be easier now that the offerings will be alongside 7,000 existing publishers on Follett's includED programand Discover platforms.

“It creates a situation where faculty can quickly review and make an evaluation of the OER resources relative to traditional publishing and decide to use which for their course,” she adds.

Second, Thanos says the company is trying to remove barriers around OER implementation by meeting faculty where they are at, in addition to offering low price options for students. Students pay between $10 and $25 for Lumen coursework, as opposed to an average of $279 spent on course materials in spring 2016, according to the Portland Business Journal.

But what if a student can’t afford or doesn’t want to pay that cost—even if it is lower? That question was raised earlier this week by edtech blogger Phil Hill on and Stephen Downes. Thanos recognizes that no matter how affordable the materials are, there are still instances where a student might not purchase them. In these cases, she says students are not denied access to the OER. If they choose to opt-out of the Lumen assessments and other materials integrated in their LMS, the OER content will still be accessible outside of that.

Follett—and now Lumen—materials are delivered through a campus’ learning management system (LMS), which allows faculty to immediately disperse course materials to students via their campus portal.

“We see about one-third of students arrive day one without materials, and that affects both outcomes and revenues,” McFarlane echoes. “If more students can buy course materials, that will help with retention and we give everyone a more equal footing when they arrive.”

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