If you’re responsible for leading your college’s growth in technology-supported learning, you don’t need to be told that the range of options for how you go about it are expanding rapidly. A growing variety of software products, instructional models, and partnership arrangements have emerged over the last 3 or 4 years. Failure to make sense of this quickly evolving space can inhibit institutions from making the best decisions or, in the worst case scenario, no decisions at all.
Clear and relevant analysis of the online higher education space is more important than ever. Tyton Partners (formerly Education Growth Advisors) continues to offer reports of value to both institutions and the vendors that serve them. They’ve distinguished themselves from other private consulting firms by focussing much of their growing body of work on instructional issues. For good reason: it’s here, rather than in the areas of marketing and administration (the primary focus for many private firms), that higher education has the greatest opportunity to bend the “iron triangle” of costs, quality and access.
“Time for Class: Lessons for the Future of Digital Courseware in Higher Education” is a three-part series that considers the current state of the digital courseware market. Digital courseware is defined for the purposes of the study as “curriculum delivered through purpose-built software to support teaching and learning”. Over 2,700 faculty and administrators (presumably all in the US), were surveyed and combined with an internal analysis of over 120 courseware products. (My notes concern only the first two installments; the third paper is forthcoming.)
Their conclusion? Digital courseware enjoys high awareness and significant use by faculty, but “leaves many users woefully dissatisfied and also faces considerable barriers to further adoption.”
The dissatisfaction stems, in part, from the fact that the suppliers are focused on “efficacy”—the quality and impact of the courseware on student learning outcomes. But faculty and administrator placed a great deal of emphasis on other factors, such as “impact on faculty time, faculty control over instructional method and course experience, and technical integration challenges.”
“While our research substantiates the importance of efficacy, it also provides insights into faculty experiences and perspectives that challenge the notion of efficacy as a silver bullet to drive courseware adoption. The existence of other significant barriers to adoption, along with high levels of dissatisfaction with courseware products, suggests that efforts must be made to bring down multiple barriers if we are to see digital courseware implemented with greater scale and with favorable impact on student outcomes. By listening to faculty demands for simpler products that are less time-consuming to adopt and customize, and by evaluating institutional conditions for use, suppliers and institutions could make digital courseware a less daunting tool for faculty to adopt.”
We certainly agree with the importance placed on ease-of-use and institutional alignment. Acrobatiq totally reconfigured the user experience of its courseware and platform to make it simple and engaging for both students and faculty. Given our deep roots in academia, we are intimately familiar with the importance of the alignment with institutional practices and culture. Recently, we argued that one of the most qualities of great educational technology leaders in higher education ” . . . is the ability to evaluate not just the value of the ever-increasing range of new technologies, instructional methods, and business models on offer, but also how well these different opportunities align with the unique organizational design, processes and culture of our colleges and universities. They recognize that “fit” is all-important.”
We need more studies that look at the experiences and perceptions of faculty and administrators as they try to make the best use of available resources. Due to the capital-intensive demands of technology and services, institutions will likely continue to turn to vendors and consortia for many of their needs as they expand their footprints in online higher education.
Time for Class is a useful contribution to this goal. But the study could have been enhanced by a more narrowly defined concept of courseware, as well as greater consideration for the importance of survey respondents different knowledge of the subject. As it is, not all respondents were properly prepared to provide meaningful answers to the questions posed by the research.
The survey asks faculty and administrators to provide an assessment of how well the courseware is serving their needs. This seems appropriate given that, according to the study, a whopping 96% of respondents are “aware or somewhat aware” of digital courseware and 54% have used it within the last year. But the study then also notes that the respondents actual knowledge of the products was very low:
“Faculty and administrators have a high awareness of courseware as a category but very low awareness of specific products and offerings.”
“ . . . Furthermore, we found a widespread lack of recognition of courseware as a category distinct from learning management systems and course delivery solutions (e.g., homework tools, lecture capture tools, content management systems) . . .”
“Over half of our respondents did not or could not name the product that they used. Over half of those who did respond named learning management systems.”
The lack of knowledge is exacerbated by the very broad definition of courseware used in the study, which included:
- textbook bundles
- assess and adjust learning experiences
- interactive textbooks
- open education resources (OER) course products
- game or role-based experiences
- custom courseware tools
These are not merely different versions of a single category of educational products, but different categories. But more to the point, we know that these types of products differ in ways that directly impact the criteria used in the analysis. The impact on faculty workload, for example, is radically different for OER than it is for deploying an interactive textbook. Similarly, the ability of a faculty member to customize game-based experiences is very different than when they are simply using an LMS. (See the reference to “LMS” above.)
To enhance our understanding of how well courseware is serving academia, we need to be confident that the study participants have a solid understanding of what is being assessed. This will, in turn, provide vendors and education professionals with a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities for implementing courseware that meets the institution’s needs.