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Open-Education Company Helps Develop Textbook-Free Associate Degree

Universities and foundations have poured more than $100-million into creating open-education materials. But according to David Wiley, an open-education advocate for 15 years, faculty members and administrators have been slow to use the resources as alternatives to expensive textbooks.

“It’s frustrating to watch these resources keep getting created, and then watch nobody use them and watch students get no benefit,” he said.

So Mr. Wiley helped found Lumen Learning, a new company that will offer guidance and support to institutions looking to use those resources. One of the company’s goals is to collaborate with colleges to develop an associate degree in business administration that can be completed entirely with free open-education materials.

Colleges following what the company calls the Textbook Zero model would offer a section using open-education alternatives for every required course and elective needed to earn the degree. Lumen is now testing the model with an unnamed community college on the East Coast, and is also looking for colleges interested in applying the model to general-studies and computer-science degrees.

Graduating without ever buying a textbook could shave 30 percent off total tuition costs, Mr. Wiley said.

Open-education alternatives to textbooks are created by taking what professors expect students to master by the end of a course, then using those expectations as search criteria to find openly licensed materials. The materials, which can include textbooks, videos, and journal and newspaper articles, are then pulled together into a new product that is both inexpensive—or even free—and tailored to individual courses’ needs. (By basing the content on student and professor preferences rather than specific existing textbooks, the process differs from the “alignment” technique that recently landed another company, Boundless Learning, in legal trouble.)

Rising textbook prices have been a growing concern for students in recent years, with seven out of every 10 students having skipped buying a course’s textbook because of the cost, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group survey. More than 30 percent of students have opted out of a course entirely rather than pay for required texts, according to a survey by Florida Virtual Campus.

“With open-education resources, everyone has access to materials on the first day of class,” said Kim Thanos, chief executive and the other founder of Lumen. “They’re not waiting on financial aid or loan checks to go through.”

Since 2011, Mr. Wiley and Ms. Thanos have teamed up with colleges to help bring more awareness to open-education resources through a project called the Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. The program has recently been granted additional funds, taking the initiative through 2014 and expanding it to include a total of 20 institutions. Kaleidoscope, Ms. Thanos said, laid the groundwork for the new company.

“Our goal is to not develop or redevelop new materials, but to help teachers and then accurately measure the learning results,” she said.

While some remain skeptical that license-free alternatives could replace established, peer-reviewed textbooks created by major publishers, Mr. Wiley said that many open-education resources are created through grants by organizations and institutions like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Carnegie Mellon University, and therefore go through their own vetting process.

High-quality material exists, he said. More people just need to know how to find it.

“It has been the ultimate example of ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Mr. Wiley said. “But they just haven’t come yet. Lumen’s trying to bridge that last mile.”

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