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By Anita Delahay

Why are we still talking about courseware?

It’s a disappointing realization. The courseware category hasn’t changed much in the last half dozen years. When Gartner published its Hype Cycle for Education in 2016, declaring Adaptive E-textbooks and Adaptive Learning Platforms past the Peak of Inflated Expectations and sliding into the Trough of Disillusionment, it signaled a road ahead. According to Gartner, after the Trough, innovations like courseware will recalibrate along a Slope of Enlightenment and move toward a Plateau of Productivity. In the Trough, sheltered by less media attention and fewer client expectations, businesses will reflect, use their time, and generate insight to catalyze a more meaningful and effective product or service.

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Apparently, the Slope is not an inevitability. Since the hype, and subsequent trough, there have been few new entrants to the field. Many courseware products have fallen away or been sold: fate unknown. Pockets of innovation are occurring, but are focused more on content catalogs for a particular grade or subject than on the tools of creation and delivery, a hallmark of the courseware category.

But innovation is possible in the courseware category. At Argos Education, our goal is to upend expectations for what courseware can do by focusing on barriers to educators’ use, delight, and productivity within the software. This will take reflection and insight. And lots of interaction with users, something that has not happened enough in this space. Anything new in the courseware category must learn from challenges of the past, as well as bring educators into the design space. To this end, we’ve been doing a lot of listening. We’ve had conversations that have pointed to specific problems in today’s products.

To start, we asked what there was to learn from the people who have implemented courseware at their colleges and universities: Instructional Designers, Course Developers, and Online Program Directors. These people usually did not make the final decision to select their products, but were the ones who were tasked with implementing them with faculty: guiding use, solving problems, and communicating (and recommunicating) the value proposition. They understand what their leadership was trying to achieve and where some of the intended value has not been realized.

In these conversations, we heard tough challenges. Here are the five most common that emerged.

Five courseware implementation challenges:

  1. “We could not make our courses modular for easy reuse.”
    We heard from several people that ‘modularity and reuse’ was part of their college’s strategic mission. Unfortunately, educators and designers were not able to edit “out-of-the box” courses, nor solve the problem by authoring courses on their own, because these were not easy to design in such a way that supported reuse.
  2. “Faculty resisted authoring and found it difficult.”
    The courseware was not intuitive for instructor-authors. Designers found that faculty often needed a lot of guidance to use courseware effectively, and would sometimes provide a Word template for the faculty to fill in and then do the upload for them. After the course was in flight, data was not used to support revision cycles.
  3. “The delivery platform for the courses did not allow us to control the learning experience.”
    Courseware platforms invariably enforce one primary method of learning, such as problem-based learning, confidence ratings, or targeted practice. All of these are good methods, but courses in the wild tend to use many instructional practices, often within the same week. Existing courseware does not support designing for a range of learning experiences.
  4. “Working with learning objectives was more challenging than we hoped.”
    While tagging activities with learning objectives is an effective way to track student progress during learning and can support flipped classroom models, where an instructor tailors in-person time to address areas of greatest challenge, people reported that learning objectives were difficult to create, map activities to, or generate enough activities for to produce data. Furthermore, faculty were often not compelled to use data related to them.
  5. “We did not see the expected benefit from adaptivity.”
    Individualized and personalized models hold the promise of effective and efficient learning, but these benefits may come at a cost (student time on task, instructor control) or be hard to quantify, particularly when opaque algorithms are used.

Each category of challenge can be further contextualized with real-world examples from our interviews.

Lack of modularity1We can’t turn off pages or assessments that don’t align with the course outcomes.
 2We’d like to be able to dynamically adjust the amount of content on the platform. We can’t ‘right size’ the content for the intended homework length or the time-on-task we require.
 3We’d like to be able to adjust the amount of content in the platform as we continue to build.
Inability to reuse content4We can’t easily go into a database, click boxes for modules and make a new project.
 5Now, when we create a project, it can’t be accessed across courses.
Difficulty authoring6When working with faculty to design their courses, we needed to create a template for what they should do (using Word). Otherwise, they wouldn’t know how to get started.
Difficulty using data for revisions7It is a lot of effort to use data on how students are performing to make updates. Most faculty do not want to spend time doing this and instead make changes based on their intuition.
Lack of control over the learning experiences8One platform we looked at forced students to work linearly, blocking them from moving forward if they were stuck, which hinders independent learning. Another platform we looked at did not constrain students’ path at all, which allows students to jump straight to the quiz without doing the intended readings and practice. We were looking for more choices to design the learning activities we want.
Challenges using learning objectives9Faculty did not want to spend a lot of time tagging learning objectives to activities.
 10There were too many learning objectives per module and this is overwhelming for the instructor.
 11Faculty had a hard time understanding the data.
 12Instructional designers had a hard time explaining the importance of creating and assigning practice and looking at learning data.
Lack of clear benefits from adaptivity13We hoped the adaptivity would reduce the teaching burden for instructors instead of increasing the learning time for students.
 14It’s hard for the instructor to see what is adapting and respond to students’ questions or frustrations.

Each of these challenges presents a unique opportunity.

In the coming months, we will talk more about how we are redefining courseware. Here are a few highlights of where we will be focusing in 2022, on solutions that we call #educatorforward:

  • Infrastructure around collaboration, data, and discovery for the industry (educators, teaching and learning professionals, designers) to leverage and learn together.
  • Testing and validation around how pedagogical choices relate to outcomes.
  • Ease of use of learning objective and tracing their impact.
  • “Unbundling” the market to allow for easier content discovery and sharing.
  • Just-in-time scaffolding for authors around good learning design.
  • AI/ML as a tool to supporting educators’ and designers’ decision making, rather than as a brute-force, black-box decision maker. #educatorintheloop
  • Crowdsourcing enhancements to OER and enabling the addition of more vibrant  and experiential learning experiences.

We are also committed to engaging with all categories of educators and learning designers at each stage of design and development. We believe this is the only way to forge a new path with better outcomes. With this in mind, more to come…