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7 Questions with Lumen Learning Founders Kim Thanos and David Wiley

Over the past decade, Lumen Learning has expanded its focus on open educational resources to encompass courseware, professional development, online community building and more. Here's how the company is tackling challenges of equity and student success.

Digital courseware provider Lumen Learning recently announced a Gates Foundation-funded initiative to create and implement equitable course materials for gateway courses, with the goal of eliminating race and income as predictors of student success. The company is partnering with minority-serving institutions to co-design and pilot the courseware, starting with a reinvention of Introduction to Statistics. We sat down with Lumen founders Kim Thanos and David Wiley to find out more about their work. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Campus Technology: October marked Lumen Learning's 10-year anniversary. Could you talk a little bit about how the company started?

David Wiley: Lumen had its beginnings back in 2010 with Project Kaleidoscope, a grant-funded effort to support faculty at eight institutions across the country in adopting OER in place of the proprietary materials they'd been using before. If you remember back to that decade, there'd been $100 million dollars spent by foundations funding the creation of OER — but nobody was actually using them in class. They were using them as supplements, but they weren't using them in place of other materials. So they weren't actually saving students any money and they weren't enabling the impact that we all hoped OER could have.

At the end of that project, we had the opportunity to propose another grant to the [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation], where they set a stretch goal for us of trying to work with 30 institutions. It was kind of a challenge from the foundation: You did it with eight, could you do it with 30?

7 questions with lumen learning

And that's really the impetus of how Lumen got started, with our interest in 1) can we use OER to improve access to course materials for students, and 2) will increased access to course materials result in better student learning. And it turns out that the answers to those two questions are that OER will reliably, consistently save students money. But faculty adopting OER does not reliably, consistently lead to better outcomes for students. More often than not, it leads to the same outcomes at lower costs, which is great. Getting the same thing for lower cost is terrific. But over time, we started to get the sense that the status quo in terms of success, especially for marginalized groups of students — it wasn't okay just to have the same kind of bad results but make them less expensive.

CT: I remember Project Kaleidoscope well, because Campus Technology recognized one of the partner colleges with an Innovators Award in 2012. It's fun to think all the way back to that time, and remember just how novel the idea was to replace textbooks entirely with OER alternatives.

Kim Thanos: We knew the problem we were trying to solve, and we were exploring potential solutions — and that centered around access and affordability, with this goal of better success because of access and affordability. And like David said, what we learned was we could solve part of that, and then more was needed. That kind of exploration, trial and error, is really core to Lumen's DNA. I'm not sure we knew it at the time, but it really is a situation of peeling the onion around student success: You solve a problem that exposes a greater depth to the larger set of challenges.


Learn more about Lumen Learning's work breaking down equity barriers in gateway courses in season 3, episode 14 of the Campus Technology Insider podcast: "Reimagining Courseware from an Equity-First Perspective"

A lot of times there's a product philosophy that is the impetus for a company, but we've been more focused on identifying the range of solutions that are needed in order to create better learning results for students in gateway courses, more equitable results for students in gateway courses. That's given us an opportunity to explore a lot of different aspects of that and identify which new solutions we can bring into that work. And that allowed us to do some things differently than we would have if we were just trying to be a different kind of publisher. It never occurred to us that we were starting a publishing company — and we still would say we're not. But we also didn't come at this saying we want to start a software company. We came at it saying we want to address the challenges of success and equitable success in gateway courses. So that's been a really fun aspect of the experience — this continual questioning, exploring, researching, understanding what others are doing, how we can build on it, what we're doing well, what we're not doing well.

CT: I know that creating equity-centered courseware for Introduction to Statistics, one of those gateway courses, is a big part of Lumen's work right now. Could you tell me a little bit about that initiative and how it came about?

Thanos: The Gates Foundation had opened up an application process and invited us to apply for a grant that was specifically around creating an Intro to Stats course and thinking about the content, the learning design, and the technology in which it would be delivered, in order to improve success for all students, but specifically to eliminate race and income as predictors of success in the course. If you look at performance in Intro to Stats courses, it's very clear from the data that there is significant variability in success rates, and that race and income are in fact predictors of success in that course. So when David and I first started brainstorming about how we could come at that problem set with the resources to be able to really redesign things for a step-function improvement, we got incredibly excited about that.

It has been very challenging work. And I say that in a really positive way. It's been the kind of work that stretches and grows everyone on the team in different directions and in ways that that really make you your best self but also can be very challenging. We've been able to bring together a diverse network of partners that's been able to help us and guide us through that grant process. We expanded our team to have a more diverse set of perspectives in the team, leading the team, leading the design work, working with minority-serving institutions, with both the faculty and student populations, to have a co-design process where we had students at the table telling us what they needed. As a partner, the Gates Foundation always brings a lot of research to the table, and they commissioned a lot of research to understand issues and opportunities more deeply. So we had a chance to really delve into: What are the root causes that create these inequities? Which of those root causes can we influence? Which of those root causes do we need to find another way to overcome?

In the past, we thought about content as a textbook replacement, and then the technology as being an opportunity to provide practice and feedback. And as we've looked at what we need to support students and faculty members with this different lens, we're bringing a much broader range of student supports and faculty supports into the toolset — so that there are many different ways that faculty and students can engage with each other, ways that faculty members and students can engage as communities with the materials, ways they can see themselves and actually help shape and craft those learning experiences.

CT: How do you select the individual colleges and universities to work with on co-designing the courseware?

Thanos: It's always a bit of a balance for us. There's a group of institutions that we've worked with successfully in the past, and we were specifically looking for minority-serving institutions, because we knew there would be a large number of students that were in the target profile for this grant. We've had a really positive collaboration with the State University of New York system. SUNY's actually our largest customer. And so we talked to the system office about the different minority-serving institutions in SUNY and they identified Rockland Community College as one that might be a great target for this, and so we've done some really good work with Rockland. We've worked with Santa Ana College in California very successfully in the past and have found them to be great collaborators. And then we also created a partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which has a lot of positive history and experience driving innovation, helping support the use of innovative tools and teaching practices with an eye toward achieving impact at scale. And so [APLU Vice President for Digital Transformation for Student Success] Karen Vignare and the team at APLU helped us identify some of their very strong partners that also had large numbers of students in this target profile. Georgia State University is one of those that came to us through APLU, as well as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Florida International University. It really rounded things out nicely for us to be able to tap into the experience and perspective of a different set of institutions with a different history of innovation.

CT: When you're working with so many different institutions and evaluating the impact on student success, that's a very data-intensive process. How does that work, integrating the data from all those sources?

Wiley: There are questions that we can ask and answer using our own data from inside the system. But there are some questions that you can only ask and answer in collaboration with partner institutions. And out of all the parts of the process of developing the content, building new technology, all of that, the part of it that actually is the most complicated is working with institutions on data-sharing agreements and getting access to the kind of data that is necessary to be able to do the analysis that you want to do. In this particular case, the Gates Foundation made a separate grant to Digital Promise, which is doing the formal evaluation of the work that we're doing to answer the question: Have we been successful in eliminating race and income as predictors of student success? Yes or no? You probably don't want to ask us that question — you want to ask a third party that question. And so Digital Promise is designing a research study and they have an advisory group of people they've been working with. They'll be partnering with the institutions to get the access to the data that they need to be able to ask and answer the relevant questions around whether race is still a predictor of success, whether income is still a predictor of success, at the end of the process.

You're right, it's very data-intensive. This isn't a question that you want to answer with four or five anecdotes. This is a question that you want to answer with a randomized controlled trial with several hundred faculty at institutions all across the country, which is the kind of study design that we understand Digital Promise is working on.

Thanos: One of the advantages that we have as a company is the ability to see what's working and not working for students in each stage of the learning process as they're moving through a course. We use a lot of different systems and tools to be able to track that: Some of them are really looking at more quantitative analysis, and some of them are more of a user testing kind of analysis.

So often, faculty members and institutions can't see what's happening in terms of student learning until something hits the gradebook, but then it's really too late to influence that grade. And a lot of times, institutions don't have eyes on that until you get to the final grade in the course. So part of what we're paying attention to is being able to have earlier eyes on the moment that it's first clear that students are less engaged or not understanding something specifically — especially something that's going to be built on throughout the course. Even with the new statistics course, we're doing much more pretest work to make sure that the students have the prerequisite knowledge they need to be successful in the course, and if they don't, to be able to remediate that immediately, where it's a small chunk of prerequisite knowledge that's needed for any given week in the course. You don't have to remediate for all of the K-12 education experience at once. You just need to say, "If the student can remember these three things, then it will make them successful this week." One of the real advantages of digital learning tools is that the student usage data and the student learning data are just replete with great information on what we can do better and what students really need.

Wiley: We jokingly refer to that data that comes through at the end of term as autopsy data — it's great at helping us understand what happened, but it's too late to take any meaningful action. At the same time, particularly in this new statistics course, we're not trying to do anything predictive. We're not trying to get out ahead of things and put ourselves in the situation where predictive algorithms might be reifying some bias. That's exactly the kind of thing we're trying to work against with the course design. But there is a lot of real-time data that's available to students about their own learning that they can see and they can reflect on and they can think about, as well as dashboards for faculty that are providing them with real-time information — not predictive, but also not at the end of the term. Just right-when-you-need-it, right-in-the-moment information about who's struggling now, who can I reach out to now, who there is still time to influence, so that we're not talking about data that comes in too late.

CT: I know that Lumen has a big focus on faculty development with your Circles product. Why is faculty development an important part of the equation?

Thanos: If we're going to impact student learning, there are really only two changes that we can create: One is changing student behavior, and the other is changing faculty behavior. And so the faculty development side of this is two things: How can we ensure that the tools that are available to faculty members encourage effective practices, but also one of the major constraints in terms of improvement and innovation in education is just faculty time — especially with the large number of adjunct faculty members who deliver these courses. So the second piece is, how can we develop tools that allow faculty members — who might not have time to explore and really invest in understanding how to use evidence-based practices — to do it super quickly and very easily. Both of those are really important.

The approach we use for Lumen Circles is strengths-based. And one of the most common reactions that we hear from faculty members as they learn more about evidence-based practices is, "Oh, I've been doing this all along. I just didn't know there was a name for it." Once that comes together, then faculty members get really creative about how they build on what they're already doing well, build on things that are already strong practices, and connect some of those pieces together.

One of the major focus areas of the new courseware and the new platform, which we're calling Lumen One, is to bring together these different efforts in one place, so that faculty members don't have to go someplace else in order to explore evidence-based practices — there is actually information right there in their teaching environment that's making suggestions, linking them to additional resources. There's a lot that we can do to make faculty professional development easier, and to make it more the way things are done instead of a separate activity that happens outside of the teaching environment.

Wiley: The design question for the courseware on the faculty side is, how can you make teaching with evidence-based practices the path of least resistance? Make it so that doing something less effective would actually take more time — it'd be harder. And the same thing on the student side: How can the system be designed so that using highly effective study practices is the easiest way to use the system?

CT: What's on the horizon for Lumen — once the new courseware comes out, what's next?

Thanos: The pilot version of the courseware is going to be live with faculty and students in January — right now we have 67 sections committed to that pilot. We're very quickly looking to add the other first-level math courses so that we have the full suite — Intro to Stats, Quantitative Reasoning, and College Algebra — and then also looking at how we can use that with other disciplines. We're in development with an Intro to Psychology course and an Intro to Business course, so we can continue to move through the gateway courses.

We also just announced a partnership with InScribe, and we're looking at how we can have strong, vibrant student communities and, looking forward, faculty communities. We think there's a lot of great research to be done about how that peer-to-peer learning experience can support students in the class environment. It's this idea that they can come together and have a community of peers that they're sharing with that's moderated, that's helpful, that's accurate. The core elements that we're trying to address are multifaceted: How do we how do we create belonging for every student in the course? How do we help students have the confidence to ask for help when they need help? Just the simple experience of coming into a community and saying, "Oh, my goodness, that stupid question I have, lots of other people have it too," that's a validating and important experience. And so that whole exploration around how do we move from having great digital materials and some classroom experience, to a larger community of learning and more collaborative faculty community for teaching and learning — there are just a lot of exciting possibilities there.

Wiley: There's this saying in entrepreneurship that you're supposed to fall in love with your problem, not with your solution. And I think Lumen has been a really great example of that: We used OER for a while; we've moved to courseware; we've moved to professional development; now we have this online community work that we're doing. I think the future is deeper and deeper understanding of the problem we're trying to solve, and as we see the different aspects of the problem, what's the next one that we could address? And how would we do that in a way that integrates well and creates synergies with really great courseware and really great professional development and a really vibrant online community for students and for faculty? What would the next piece of that be? It's hard to say. We have to get into the work a little further and see the degree to which we have made progress on the problem, and what's the next piece of it that surfaces as we pull something back. But this continued commitment to really being in love with our problem, and not so enamored with solution, I think there's more of that in our future.

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