SPARC Innovator: David Wiley

Open Education

David Wiley

For David Wiley, defining the concept of “open” is simple.

“In the context of education, it comes down to sharing,” says the 43-year-old, who is affectionately called the godfather of open education by the community. “At the end of the day, an educator is sharing knowledge and passion – that’s what you are doing, and ought to be doing.”

Wiley is credited with being the first person to apply the label “open,” a concept previously applied only to software, to other resources such as textbooks and journal articles. He coined the term “open content” to describe material that is licensed to provide users with free and perpetual permission to engage in what he calls “the 5R” activities: retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute.

In 2012, Wiley left a tenured job as an associate professor at Brigham Young University to co-found Lumen Learning, which provides open courseware and support for institutions transitioning high enrollment courses to open educational resources. Lumen, a Portland, Oregon-based organization, was given the “Most Disruptive Technology” award last year by the Oregon Technology Association Companies.

For his creativity, generosity, and dedication to the open education movement, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition has honored with Wiley the January 2016 SPARC Innovator Award.

“David is widely and internationally considered a thought leader on advocacy and promotion of open educational resources,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC in Washington, D.C. “He is a rare combination of not only being really good at writing, thinking, and talking about the constructs, philosophy, and value of OER — he’s someone who works to create it.”

Wiley grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Marshall University with a degree in vocal performance. A fan of free software since the early 1990s, Wiley says he loved the pragmatic benefits of “open,” and became aware of the difference it could make for students when he was a webmaster at Marshall.

Working to embed a calculator on a webpage, he realized that online materials could be copied and distributed at no cost, and this access to online materials had enormous potential to expand education around the world.

“I don’t want to overstate it as one of those experiences where the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight shone down….but once I understood the potential, I knew I had an obligation to work on that,” says Wiley. “That sense of calling has only gotten deeper over the years.”

At Lumen, Wiley is helping address student success and college affordability by working with college faculty to give them the tools, technology, and support to make it easy to use and reuse OER. In the past three years, Lumen has expanded its partnerships from eight to 70 schools. Last fall, the company directly supported faculty teaching nearly 25,000 students using OER; in the spring that number will double to 50,000.

Wiley notes that every time a faculty member replaces a textbook with OER it saves a student about $100. That translated into $2.5 million in savings last semester. Lumen’s goal is to save students $1 billion annually while improving the completion and graduation rates of those they serve.

Wiley’s blog on has attracted devoted readers, including SPARC’s Director of Open Education Nicole Allen. “His blog informed a lot of my early opinions on the issue,” says Allen. “He’s been an inspiration to many advocates leading the movement today.”

Allen describes Wiley as a visionary who has shaped the open education movement and been an integral part of the action on the ground.

“He is driven by wanting people to learn better and more effectively and to share knowledge. He is a true believer,” says Allen. Wiley’s strength is that he is pragmatic and talks about a spectrum of moving to open, rather than drawing harsh lines that could be alienating. “He is an incredibly effective communicator in person and has done our movement a great service,” says Allen.

Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons, also credits Wiley with inspiring his career in open education. He first got to know Wiley while working on an OER initiative with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges eight years ago.

“What struck me about David was the clarity of thought he brought to complex issues,” says Green. “He has a knack for driving to the heart of the issue – simple, yet sophisticated and respectful of all views.”

Green says Wiley is an innovative leader, but is quick to share credit with others and is not afraid to change his opinion when someone else has a better idea. “When there is an important issue and something new needs to be created, he’s not afraid to jump in and make it happen,” says Green.

Green describes Wiley as “gutsy” for leaving his secure job at BYU to start Lumen. “David and his partner Kim Thanos knew it was going to take hands-on, in-the-trenches work with colleges and faculty to move OER into mainstream education,” says Green. “So they left their jobs and started Lumen Learning – now a model of how to build a for-profit business around openly licensed educational resources.”

David Ernst has been following Wiley’s writings since the early 2000s. Now the Chief Information Officer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, Ernst says Wiley has a special gift of being able to express his vision very plainly in a way that is not “academic gibberish, but is very usable.”

Wiley’s passion to spread the gospel of open means he spends a lot of time traveling and meeting with interested parties. “He has a generosity and bigness of spirit,” says SPARC’s Joseph. “He’s completely accessible and available to anyone in the community who wants input.”

Allen says Wiley is the first person she calls to seek advice when rolling out a new initiative. “He’s an all around innovative thinker who is good at problem solving, knows what needs to happen to get from point A to B, can find leaders, and help with a goal.”

Trying to steer the giant ship of formal education toward a more effective, open and affordable model is a very long game, says Wiley. “I don’t know that I or any of my colleagues at BYU or Lumen will live long enough to see the full transformation we envision,” he says.

Yet, Wiley says it’s rewarding to see the ball move. He adds: “It’s humbling and fun to be part of something bigger than yourself, something that improve both students’ and faculty’s lives. It’s good work to do.”

In 2000, Wiley earned his PhD in instructional psychology and technology from Brigham Young University. When Wiley co-founded Lumen with Kim Thanos, he stepped down from the full-time position and now is an adjunct, occasionally teaching classes and leading the Open Education Group at BYU. Among his other endeavors, Wiley founded the Open High School of Utah (now known as Mountain Heights Academy), which is a virtual charter school using OER across its curriculum serving grades 7-12 with over 500 students. He also helped launch the ed tech company, Degreed, and was named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company in 2009.

Wiley has received a National Science Foundation CAREER grant and been appointed as a Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, a Peery Social Entrepreneurship Research Fellow in the BYU Marriott School of Business, and a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Wiley travels regularly to Lumen’s headquarters in Portland, but lives in Utah with his wife and five children. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and serves as the lay pastor of a congregation of 200 students at BYU.

— Caralee Adams


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