Selling open: The conundrum of for profit companies in the OER space.

Michael Feldstein posted a reflection on his controversial keynote address at the Northeast OER Summit. Billed as a conversation between Don Kilburn, Michael Feldstein, and facilitated by Marilyn Billings instead both speakers gave semi-prepared speeches, they didn’t address each other. The reaction from the attendees on twitter bordered on outrage.

In his reflection, Michael was able to organize his thoughts and ideas much more clearly and coherently than he did at Summit. One quote from his article rings particularly true.

One question I got in the Q&A was what advice I had about things that the open education community isn’t doing as well as it could. That’s easy: Stop bickering so much.

-Michael Feldstein

The quote reminded me of the SUNY OER Champions Meeting in Albany. There was a murmuring discontentment in the crowd with SUNY’s partnership with Lumen Learning, a for-profit company that provides SUNY with infrastructure, preassembled courses, and original OER content.

We should ask hard questions of our friends. Here are some of mine for and about Lumen Learning.

1. Do we need Lumen Learning?

Does the company or partner provide a necessary service? In this case, Lumen Learning hosts a customized version of Pressbooks for SUNY, and gives us access to those premade courses and textbooks.

Could you convince your IT department to host a new server with open source software so that you can have your own Pressbooks? IT departments are wary to set up new infrastructure and services. Overall, the trend in higher ed IT is to pay the experts to run a server for you, using the SaaS (Software as a Service) model. Even with open source software, IT leadership frequently pays a 3rd party vender who knows all of the softwares idiosyncrasies and can deliver it at a lower cost.

How big does the need at your institution have to be to warrant the IT department seeing it as a priority? How many instructors would need to be using it for them to consider it mission critical like the LMS? Will they build it for you because you hope OER will grow on your campus? This will vary from campus to campus.

If you have the expertise at your school to host a system like Pressbooks or the Online Homework Manager, can those staff members take on more projects?

2. Does Lumen Learning behave ethically in the open space? Does Lumen share their platform as open source with the community?

Do we have access to the source code whether or not we use them as a vendor?

Can you go to Lumen Learning’s Github and download the program to run their Candela Platform? Lumen Learning runs a fork of the opensource program Pressbooks for SUNY and its other customers. All of their work is publically available on Github.

Can you download their Online Homework Manager? Lumen Learning runs a fork of the opensource program iMathAS, sometimes referred to as MyOpenMath. Lumen contributes financially to iMathAS project and employs its founder David Lippimann as future development and accessability improvements have been needed.

Where they improved these open source systems did they release those improvements back to the community? When working with open-source projects, Lumen has continued to release these improvements back to the open community.

3. Does Lumen Learning behave ethically in the open space? Does Lumen share their content?

Can you get their content and books from their public facing website even if SUNY didn’t have the contract?

For example, do you have access to their US History book? Even if you don’t pay Lumen Learning for their tech support and adoption team you can always go to their public facing website. Since the license on their books are irrevocable, they cannot put up barriers to the content.

If you had a Pressbooks server, could you clone the book onto your server? Part of the reason that Pressbooks is used by the open community is the ease that entire books can be copied from server to server. If you follow the link, you will see that I have copied the entire text of Lumen Learnings US History book onto my Pressbooks server at That means that the work that Lumen does curating and improving its collection are also available to the entire open community.

Does the books license allow for that kind of reproduction? Lumen is a strong advocate for the CC-BY license, and continues to license all of its original works with an unrestrictive creative commons license.

4. Does working with this vendor help the sustainability of OER both at your institution, the movement across SUNY, and the overall movement?

Are there other options that are more sustainable for the initiative at your institution or the OER movement in general?

David Wiley’s blog has a sub-title, “Pragmatism before Zeal.” He believes that the best way to make the biggest impact with OER is to give instructors high quality, ready to adopt texts that can be quickly and easily integrated into a variety of LMSs or shared as a stand alone website.

Let’s have an ‘open’ and honest conversation. I think we should ask hard questions of our friends. I think once some of the people questioning SUNY’s partnership with Lumen hear the answers, they will feel better.

Ed Beck is an Instructional Designer at SUNY Oneonta.

I’ve done a lot of research on this. I run my own Pressbooks server on the Amazon Cloud at so I can compare core Pressbooks to what I have available to me through SUNY’s vendor.

I’m an active open source member of the Pressbooks community, testing the latest versions, reporting bugs, and enjoying the collaboration that comes from an open community.

One response to “Selling open: The conundrum of for profit companies in the OER space.”

  1. […] serving as SUNY’s partner. Last year, in response to the debate, I published a piece called “Selling Open: The Conundrum of for-profit companies in the OER Space.” In that piece I tried to ask some questions about how Lumen behaves, and shine a light on some of […]

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