Searching for Digital Courseware Solutions? Avoid the Rabbit Hole

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“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The Cheshire Cat’s advice to Alice has parallels in higher ed, especially for faculty trying to make sense of the multitude of digital courseware solutions in order to personalize learning for students. “What problem do I need to solve?” can be trickier to answer than it seems.

At the University of Central Florida (UCF), Associate Vice President of Distributed Learning Tom Cavanagh and his colleagues have narrowed the scope of their courseware search by focusing on one central problem: student persistence. UCF ran a courseware pilot that involved more than 1,700 students in 30 sections over the course of 7 terms.

Cavanagh shares how he and his colleagues avoided feeling like they were going down the rabbit hole of too many options, while undertaking their most recent efforts to pilot and use adaptive and other digital courseware.

Gates Bryant: It’s easy for people leading the charge on courseware in digital learning to get lost in the different features of products and solutions. They can enter a state of feature hypnosis in a way, getting transfixed by what seems tried and true or else whatever is trending at the moment. How does UCF circumnavigate this challenge?

Tom Cavanagh: At UCF, we have a single focus on student success. We are always looking to improve our DFW (drop, fail, withdraw) rates. We know that we have to create a more personalized learning environment to do that. But we’re also the second largest school in the country, so we know we have to use technology to create and scale that experience.

Courseware products have so many features—collaboration, adaptivity, customization—and they are all important, but it is difficult to get all of them in one solution. Prioritization is necessary. This is one place the Courseware in Context framework can be useful, as one of its promises is to provide an instrument for discerning those priorities and aligning them with courseware feature offerings.

Does that prioritization happen differently in different departments? I’m thinking specifically of collaboration. There’s tension between the traditional idea that education is an individual pursuit and the current emphasis on collaboration. How does UCF think through that?

It is hard. The CWiC framework promises to alleviate that, by providing a comprehensive structure for evaluating courseware feature sets such as collaboration and determining how well they fit your own institutional context. But still, finding a balance between an individualized student experience and offering meaningful interaction with peers requires intentional design.

Even as we were going through the process to determine which feature was most important not every faculty member agreed. For example, a faculty member in our writing department argued that if one of his goals for students was to get them to think in new and different ways, software that accommodates them at every turn works against that instead of in favor of it. I agreed. Adaptive learning is not right for every situation. But, on the other hand, if you are talking about students failing algebra, then adaptive learning can be very useful.

However, we don’t lose sight of those other features and we are trying to find ways to stay focused on adaptive learning while also building in elements of things like collaboration. Let me clarify, I am talking about collaboration beyond the discussion board. For example, in our bachelor of applied science program, one of the tracks we are building out in the personalized learning program is software development. Much of the work is collaborating in teams, building code. And you can’t really do that in the adaptive platform.

So we’re trying to find a balance in all of the knowledge-based learning and the some of the application-based learning you can cover within the adaptive platform so when the students get together to do their project work they can effectively collaborate. This program starts this fall so we’ll likely have to iterate on the approach, but this is one way we are striking the balance of the personalized approach with other important skills like collaboration.

How do you see the use of courseware for digital learning at UCF evolving in the future?

We are in the process of moving past one-off pilots to further adoption. As we do that we are trying to have more strategic conversations with deans and department chairs to talk about this change at the curricular level rather than course level. For example, in our math courses we are eliminating textbooks and putting that information into the adaptive learning platform. A change like that needs to be strategic and made at the departmental level. To be sustainable these transitions can’t end with a faculty member’s pilot project.

Courseware also has the opportunity to be a mechanism for standardization. For example, one day, and not necessarily at UCF but in higher education overall, there might be a team of senior faculty members who build a course on a courseware platform. Then more junior faculty members might deliver those courses while the course creators oversee the process. In that kind of future some faculty members may give up a certain degree of freedom in order to standardize new teaching approaches and realize increased student success. At research universities like UCF, such a model might allow faculty more time to pursue research and scholarship while simultaneously improving the student experience. Improving student success is always the goal.

This interview is the final in a three-part series of Q&As about digital courseware in practice. Check out Bryant’s other interviews with Eddie Watson at the University of Georgia and Larry Rudman of Kaplan University.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Gates Bryant (@cgatesbryant) is a partner with Tyton Partners, an advisory firm that provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors. The firm published a three-part series on courseware that enables digital learning in 2015. A new report on courseware in higher education will be available in the fall of 2016.

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