Online courseware is increasingly attractive to colleges and universities that are looking for innovative ways to address the challenges of closing the degree attainment gap, particularly for first-generation, low-income students.
However, courseware may also seem intimidating to instructors and institutions accustomed to traditional methods of classroom teaching. They may believe it minimizes the instructor’s role.
Innovative new programs, however, are building on the twelve years of research at the Online Learning Initiative which established that by coupling effective learning practices with predictive analytics and instructional design, online courseware can play a part in creating highly effective and personalized online learning experiences. This does require the thoughtful design of online courseware and of the courses that use it.
What is online courseware?
There are many definitions of courseware, not all of which are compatible. But the most common understanding of online courseware was presented by MindWires’ Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein in a 2014 e-Literate TV video: courseware is often an online platform with proprietary educational content embedded into it. This content often includes learning objectives and elements of curricular design.
In other words, online courseware is an online interactive version of a textbook, often called a digital textbook. Courseware engages students with activities, games, or assessments; it may grade those assessments and tracks student progress toward learning objectives.
Another advantage to courseware is that, while textbooks usually incorporate more information than one instructor can teach, courseware can have its content refined. Faculty or instructional designers should be able to select and present only the relevant modules and practice materials. In fact, more recent advances in courseware include companion authoring tools that let instructors edit existing content down to the sentence level and even incorporate original modules of their own.
Aligning with course design
According to a survey published in 2015 by Tyton Partners, faculty members report one of the major classroom level barriers to courseware adoption to be “lack of alignment with my philosophy of instructional design.” Many respondents to that survey felt using courseware meant a loss of control over student experience and course design, and they resisted the change to their teaching methods.
When switching to courseware, however, change is necessary.
While online courseware is often used to replace textbooks, it is not a textbook. Students won’t engage with it in the same way, and neither will an instructor. An instructor using online courseware well has learned the features of the platform they are using and deploys them thoughtfully to engage students.
Dr. Erik Moody, an assistant professor of psychology at Marist College, is an example of this sort of teaching. He uses online courseware to supplement the teaching he does in class. His students take online assessments as preparation for his in-person quizzes. Moody also uses the student data generated by online courseware to determine when a student is struggling, and he then works with that student in person.
Commit to working as a team
Instructors who feel that using courseware means they’ve lost control over the content of their course may not realize that they still have control; they simply must become comfortable with collaboration.
An instructor can’t very well call a traditional publisher and ask if the company can customize the text to their specific needs. But an instructor can, and should, speak to the provider of their online courseware about how the courseware can better serve their students. This communication is important for a couple of reasons: feedback helps developers find and fix bugs in courseware, and it helps publishers personalize online courseware for instructors and their students.
According to Soomo Learning’s David Lindrum, interviewed by MindWires in 2013, instructors often treat courseware as they would a textbook: a static resource they can either take or leave. Lindrum expresses frustration with this mindset because he wants input from faculty so that he can help tailor resources to their classes and students. Yet, he says it is difficult to get teachers to tell them about their class structure, their needs, and how they teach.
To ensure the best, most personalized experience for a class, instructors must commit to giving publishers feedback, and administrators must encourage and remind instructors to do this. By working with online courseware providers — sharing instruction methods, class goals, the sort of projects students complete, and the way work is assigned — instructors can help publishers tailor the courseware to their classes and improve student outcomes.
What the research is showing
Certain features offered by online courseware tend to have a positive effect on student outcomes. A 2014 study by SRI Education, for example, identified 11 features of classes using online courseware that noticeably improved student outcomes.
Knowing what has worked for others will help instructors and institutions make informed choices about how to design their classes and make the most of their online courseware.
For example, designing (or re-designing) classes around courseware had a more positive effect on outcomes than simply tacking courseware onto an already-existing class. When classes were created with courseware in mind, instructors were better able to use the features of those platforms.
Customized courseware also has a positive effect on learning — particularly certain types of personalization. According to the report, courseware that adapted instruction based on student progress through a course had more impact on outcomes than courseware that didn’t personalize or courseware that personalized learning based on students’ preferences.
Offer support to faculty who need it
While online courseware expands access to education, improves outcomes, and increases completion rates for students, it is useless unless the educators who are expected to use it receive support.
According to Tyton Partners’s survey, faculty’s most common barrier to adopting online courseware is not having enough time to learn how to use it. More than 60 percent of respondents to that survey said faculty were encouraged by their institutions to use online courseware, but only 15 percent were incentivized to do so and just 30 percent received training.
Online courseware requires an initial time investment by the faculty who will be designing the course around it and who, in many cases, are the first line of technical troubleshooters in the classroom. Universities can make these educators’ jobs easier, simply by giving them the time and support they need — often in the form of instructional designer professionals — to become comfortable and proficient with courseware.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.