beyond textbooks

Moving Beyond Textbooks

Textbooks have been with us since the dawn of time (or at least it feels that way). They have been researched, tested, reviewed, vetted and used for editions upon editions. But in a world where a first-year college student could have been born in 1996 – the year Derek Jeter won his first World Series – and would have been 11 years old when Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone, their expectations are that they will be able to do much more online in their courses than read PDF pages on a screen.

So where does that leave time- and budget-pressured college faculty looking to provide students with outstanding learning experiences? Between a textbook and a hard place.

One place to explore options is courseware – but what it is and how to define courseware is a bit murky. So to start we’ll describe things we’ve seen that lay claim to the courseware moniker:

Publisher Tools:

They carry names like MyLabs, Connect, MindTap and may or may not be followed with a mysterious “Plus”. For assessment-driven courses where completing frequent problem sets is a core part of the learning process the depth of configurability, massive arrays of items types, and in depth training requirements is awe-inspiring. Time savings for faculty are questionable, what we do know is they can cost more than $100 per student for only a few months of use. When was the last time you paid that for software?

Adaptive Learning Platforms:

This expanding class of applications claims to be able to craft a learning experience to an individual learners needs while improving course completion rates and pass rates. If the aforementioned homework tools are the equivalent of luxury cars, adaptive courseware right now are the sports cars of the space. But like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches these are tools suited to address specific needs. As an example, adaptive tools may make sense for developmental mathematics where there is a high failure rate, and it’s skill and drill, but does this really play in say, Freshman Composition, Introduction to Sociology or US History?

Learning Management Systems:

No, they aren’t courseware in and of themselves. At it’s core, an LMS is really just an empty box into which you can plug your course materials. But fill them with enough content, applications, tools and data and they start to look an awful lot like some of the tools above. Who has the abundance of time available to find, curate and integrate learning resources into these platforms? Great question, not any faculty I’ve met recently.

Courseware Service Providers:

Companies like Bisk, EmbanetCompass (Pearson), Deltak (Wiley) and others will do the work to build instructor’s existing courses into online experience. Sounds too easy, so what’s the catch? Watch out as the cost of doing so can be as high as 30-50% of every tuition dollar! Easy to build, sure as someone else is doing the work. Easy to update quickly and regularly, not so much. And quite a costly proposition.

Open Courseware:

As if that weren’t enough there is courseware that uses only open education resources (OER) such as MIT OpenCourseware which may or may not include open textbooks, assignments, simulations and other tools. But why force educators to choose OER or premium resources? Shouldn’t academic freedom imply instructors can use whatever resources and tools they need to help their students learn? Open, therefore, is limiting and those who spend the time evaluating and curating resources will tell you it certainly isn’t free.

Integrated Courseware Companies:

There is now an emerging class of companies (shameless plug for my company, Junction) that combine the best of all of the above – curated videos and readings, LMS integration, basic assignment and assessment functionality (with auto-grading and gradebook) – delivered in an easy-to-use package that can be tweaked and tuned by instructors to serve the needs of their students. Heck, they can even include textbook chapters in their digital courseware and provide a rich layer of data-driven insights to boot. Call it putting the power of technology – simply and effectively – back in the hands of skilled educators who know best the needs of their specific student populations. This is the space to watch in 2015.

Great courseware doesn’t need to cost 30-50% of tuition, or anywhere close to it. At $40-50 per student per course Junction is usually the most affordable option available and the one 82.6% of students rate as being more or much more effective than alternatives.

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Vineet Madan is the Founder & CEO of Junction Education and has been on the forefront of the digital transformation of education for nearly a decade. A first-time entrepreneur and long-time intrapreneur he launched interactive textbooks on the iPad with the likes of Inkling and Apple, scaled adaptive learning into colleges with Area9 and laid out the original product strategy and go-to market plan for McGraw-Hill’s Acuity formative assessment platform. Junction is the next step taking lessons learned from publishing around curation, aggregation, layout and design and applying them to a screen first experience.

  • CyberCourse (Cyco for short) is open source software for building skills courses from the ground up. Flipped, blended, frequent formative assessment, problem solving patterns.