Kim Thanos Wants to Take Down the Textbook Industry

April 20, 2015

Norm Shafer for The Chronicle

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Kim Thanos chief executive of Lumen Learning, discusses open-access educational resources at a recent conference.

By Goldie Blumenstyk

Kim Thanos goes to work each day with one not-so-modest goal: “Take $1 billion out of the textbook industry and give it back to students.”

And if along the way her company, Lumen Learning, manages to fuel the burgeoning movement behind “open educational resources” and advances their use in college classes, all the better.

For her the work is more than a business; it’s a cause.

Along with others who promote the use of free and open-access materials (known by the abbreviation OER), Ms. Thanos contends that traditional print and e-versions of textbooks coming from the $5-billion-plus textbook industry in higher education don’t meet the needs of faculty members or students.

Check out the rest of the Digital Campus issue and meet more of the people who are helping to drive change through education technology.

And because the publishers’ products can be so costly ­— some textbooks cost more than $200 apiece­ — ­many students simply aren’t buying or even renting them, which hurts the students academically. Experts say that’s particularly true for low-income students.

When professors adopt open-access materials, they can put low- or no-cost class materials into students’ hands on the first day of class.

“It’s a social-justice issue,” says Ms. Thanos.

At 46, she is chief executive of Lumen, an open-access company she founded in 2012 with David Wiley, a professor-turned-open-access-missionary. Based in Portland, Ore., Lumen puts together materials that make up the free digital content of open-access courses and provides a digital platform to host it.

The company has more than 60 courses in its own catalog so far — and consults directly with colleges that want to use material from Lumen or other providers to offer courses and even entire degrees without assigning commercial textbooks.

“I’m not a programmer. I’m not an academic. I’m the mortar,” says Ms. Thanos.

Unlike other open-access organizations, such as the Saylor Academy, which provides free, self-paced college courses, Lumen approaches open-access materials from the perspective of the professor and the college. Mr. Wiley describes it as “re-enthroning the faculty member.”

By tracking down both content and appropriate assessments for professors and then providing hands-on technical assistance, Lumen aims to make open resources “as easy for faculty members to adopt as a commercial textbook,” says Ms. Thanos.

Lumen, largely through Mr. Wiley, also is active in conducting peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of open resources. Academics who work with the company say they especially appreciate Lumen’s focus on faculty and students. With Lumen, says Linda Williams, a professor of business management at Tidewater Community College, the question was always, What would help students the most? The college worked with the company to create an open-resource-based associate degree in business. Now Lumen is helping to institute such courses throughout the 23-college Virginia Community College system.

Lumen says more than 500 faculty members have voluntarily provided some form of instructional or assessment content for its various courses, with 50 of them providing extensive contributions. One professor has provided more than 4,000 videos.

Ms. Williams, who is among the top contributors, says Ms. Thanos comes to the table with a different bottom line than publishers do. “She and the faculty and the institution measure success in the same way,” the professor says.

The crowdsourced approach to building support for open resources reflects Ms. Thanos’s own convictions about the way to get ideas adopted on a large scale. Those ideas grew from her earlier experiences as a business consultant to higher-education technology projects like Kuali and Sakai. Kuali is an open-source project that developed administrative software for colleges, and Sakai is a similar effort that created a course-management platform.

Before that, during the first Internet boom, in the late 1990s, Ms. Thanos worked for a company called Campus Pipeline, which built web portals for colleges.

Her passion for open resources came later, while consulting with a 2012 experiment called the Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. Backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that project showed that open educational resources could improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged students.

The M.B.A.-trained Ms. Thanos saw an opportunity to “take something out of the open-source-software playbook and apply it to the open-resources movement,” she says. By the time the Kaleidoscope project had received its second round of Gates funding, she and Mr. Wiley had formed Lumen to work with fellow grantees and to begin working with other institutions.

Today Lumen has contracts with 18 colleges and college systems, employs 15 people (up from five last fall) and says that about 10,000 students, attending at least 42 colleges, are using its courses. By next fall, Ms. Thanos expects Lumen to be serving about 50,000. The company works on a fee model that runs $5 per student per class for most courses, a charge that is typically absorbed by the college or attached as a mandatory class fee.

The fees are also part of Ms. Thanos’s philosophy. Although Lumen got off the ground with the help of grant money from Gates, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Shuttleworth Foundation, she always believed the venture needed a business model to be sustainable.

Grants are still part of its funding base — Lumen was one of the winners of another Gates grant, in September, to create “next-generation courseware.” But this month the company also attracted its first $2.5 million in outside capital from private investors. It plans to use the money to develop more courses and build grass-roots support for the open-resources movement.

“We don’t have a Pearson-sized sales force,” Ms. Thanos says, referring to the giant publishing and distance-education company. The tone of the jab is typical­­­­­­ — and the kind of comment that has more than once has prompted a publishing-company staff member to confront her when she speaks at higher-education conferences.

Some professors, too, are resistant, either because they don’t believe that the open content is as good as what’s available from commercial publishers or, in some cases, because they themselves have written textbooks that they want students to use.

But Ms. Thanos remains unflinching in her critique. Traditional textbook publishing is “a fundamentally broken model,” she argues.

Some of those publishers, of course, see the situation very differently. “We add more value than just providing content,” says Peter Cohen, president for U.S. education at McGraw Hill Education, which has invested tens of millions of dollars in digitally enhanced “smart books” that incorporate adaptive learning tools and other forms of customization.

In creating those products, he says, McGraw Hill has “dropped the cost by half” — to about $100 — and made them more effective. Of all the costs associated with higher education, the price of textbooks “is not what is driving an affordability issue,” he contends. “She’s trying to solve a problem that is no longer an issue.”

Ms. Thanos says it’s the growing influence of the open-resource movement that deserves the credit for the price cuts and for publishers’ growing attention to textbook efficacy.

The movement is only about 15 years old. Cyril Oberlander, dean of libraries at Humboldt State University and himself a pioneer of the movement, says Lumen deserves credit for lending force to its maturity.

“The implementation of an OER strategy is really difficult, and the assessment of an OER strategy is really difficult,” he says. Lumen has helped to advance both. “That’s unique,” he says. “That’s what they’ve contributed.”

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com

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