Courseware: What Comes After the Textbook

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Pilot: Lessons Learned at EDUCAUSE 2013

Courseware is an increasingly popular curricular materials product category, with entrants from the big textbook publishers such as McGraw Hill’s SmartBooks, Cengage’s MindTap, Pearson’s CourseConnect, and Wiley’s WileyPLUS, in addition to a growing number of offerings from smaller players. In this episode, Michael interviews David Lindrum from Soomo Publishing and Kim Thanos from Lumen Learning about what courseware is, how it is developed, and how technology changes the way educational materials are designed and improved.

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  1. Where do you think you need to begin conversation about courseware on your campus? What are the issues? And what are the opportunities?

  2. John Kline says:

    Thanks for the great episode. Very interesting the way these areas are intersecting. We also do Courseware! Although at this point – we have only done so for the music area. We work with academic authors for content creation. Then we build the title (choose your word of choice here: title, course, webtext, online textbook, courseware, etc.) and host it from our own platform. When we host – we are able to provide exceptional support, as well as extensive customization options. We also offer some courses as BlackBoard cartridges which include all content (not just tests and ancillary materials). And finally, we have our own custom version of Canvas Open Source that we can offer courses through. Then – we host – but instructors have complete control to customize and administer.

  3. Great interview Michael. And great summary and analysis Phil. You mention content publishers, schools (course & curriculum designers), and LMS platform providers.

    It looks like the change taking place is that companies like Lumen are beginning to engage directly with schools to develop courseware tailored to the needs particular instructors (or departments) through an agile courseware development process. Two of the main challenges companies like Lumen will have will be: (1) getting faculty to think beyond the “lone range” mode of course development (something you did discuss) and (2) addressing faculty concerns that they may be innovating themselves out of a job by developing high quality courseware (something you didn’t discuss).

    Another related topic you didn’t touch on, but I’m sure you’re aware of, is that there are specifications for encoding lesson plans. Specifically, I’m thinking of the IMS Learning Design Spec and tools for managing LD encoded lesson plans such as the LAMS system by James Dalziel. In addition to the IMS spec which is freely available (at there is also a book published in 2005:

    Learning Desing: A Handbook on Modelling and Delivering Networked Education and Training
    by Rob Koper and Colin Tattersall (Eds.)

    One critique of LD that companies like Lumen might be able to address is something that I was just discussing with Charles Severance (a U Michigan CS professor who also works for IMS and headed up the Sakai software development effort for many years):

    Fred: As I recall from your book – Sakai: Building an Open Source Community – you were not a big fan of the Learning Design spec. … The problem you saw, as I recall, was that it focused too much on professional lesson planners codifying plans for other, mere mortal teachers to carry out. From this post, it sounds like you do favor a more informal, peer-to-peer approach. Maybe an LD-lite would better serve this community.

    Charles: I agree with what you say. It comes down to tools and having multiple choices for interoperable tools available to teachers. IMS LD led to tooling that was way too complex. It probably was the spec – but it could also have just been bad tool writers.

    (I’m taking the liberty of posting this since Charles basically says all of this in his book.)

    So, after viewing your interview with David Lindrum and Kim Thanos, it may be that companies like Lumen might be willing and able to employ LD experts who could broker LD encoded learning designs and use them to help faculty develop lesson plans and courseware through an interative agile development process.

    BTW: Do you think Kim would like to hear from me on this? I was co-chair of the IMS tech board for two years and worked for Berkeley’s Instructional Technology Program for twenty. Although I’m a bit rusty after six years of retirement, I still know a bit about instructional technology, IMS specs, and the ways of research university faculty.


  4. Michael, here are two blog posts relevant to the interview:

    1) Open Courseware: What comes after the textbook (basically my first comment with a few edits)

    2) Instructional Design: A Core Issue for the Traditional University in a Time of Transition


  5. James Dalziel says:

    This is a great interview that goes to the heart of the future for textbook – thanks! I think the focus on innovation, iteration and longer timeframes is crucial to this topic. Thanks to Fred for alerting me to this, and for his thoughts on the topic, including the reference to my work on Learning Design and LAMS.

    Here are a few quick thoughts from my perspective:
    1. The vision of Learning Design is that any educator can create, share and re-use sequences of learning activities. This directly addresses the “course” element that goes beyond the textbook. From our experience with LAMS, some educators are ready to do this, but many would like assistance and examples. So I think an organisation like Lumen (or any forward-looking publisher) can play a bridging role where they have libraries of great learning activities and effective teaching templates, and then introduce these to educators during the development process, and customise them to local student needs.

    1a. One of the challenges of the wider “customised courseware” model is that the staff costs of working with faculty and customising materials to their individual needs are high, so a business that wishes to offer this service needs to make enough revenue on the resulting textbook/courseware sales to pay for the customisation liaison staff – this remains a challenge in many contexts. The benefit of an approach like LAMS is that it reduces the time and cost of the liaison and customisation process, hence making it more viable.

    2. Working with faculty on course customisation can be a challenge because it is not a simple process. Faculty tend to jump all over the place as they talk about their courses and how they teach them: one moment they discuss a content issue, then the next they remember a student assessment problem, then they recall a workshop they ran that didn’t work out as expected; then they remember a colleague’s teaching idea that went well, etc. So even where a publisher has great content and great libraries of teaching activities, finding the right way to engage faculty in a conversation about this can be challenging. This is where I think we need much more practical research on how faculty deal with course redevelopment. My friend Peter Goodyear and colleagues at the University of Sydney are working on this – for more information see

    2a. In terms of Learning Design tools to support faculty in this redevelopment process, I’d recommend looking at the “Pedagogic Planners” – such as the work of Diana Laurillard on the Learning Design Support Environment (now called the Learning Designer – see ), and our work on the LAMS Activity Planner (see the templates section after logging on to ).

    3. Unlike the more traditional instructional design approach that is single-learner based, much of the work in Learning Design is about collaborative learning (NB: you can still do single-learner activities in Learning Design; it is just that the *distinctive* bit of Learning Design is the collaborative side). However, collaborative learning can be a challenge to implement well with students (eg, students doing a group wiki where only 1 or 2 students end up doing most of the work – for details, see ), so it needs careful planning (hence the benefits of an expert Learning Designer showing effective templates); or otherwise there is a tendency to default back to “learn content, do quiz” type designs.

    4. Some of the most effective Learning Designs (like Problem-Based Learning, role plays, etc) tend to cover less “content” than traditional drill and practice; but are far more effective at teaching higher order skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and creativity. So it is important for faculty to think about the balance of “content coverage” vs “21st Century Skills” in their courses; because this affects the style of activities chosen (drill and practice quizzes vs collaborative problem solving). There is little point pushing innovative collaborative activities with a faculty member who is most worried about covering a huge amount of content.

    5. Faculty engaged in course redevelopment are not always “static” in their ideas about teaching – they may be learning new approaches *during* the redevelopment process, and are often interested to try out these new approaches. This is where sharing Learning Design libraries is fascinating – even a faculty member who has never tried a new teaching approach may be interested to try it after seeing how it could be done. So the model of engaging with faculty needs the flexibility to realise that faculty themselves become a “moving target” in their thoughts about teaching.

    If you’re interested in a pretty comprehensive synthesis on the current state of the field of Learning Design, I’d recommend the Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design – see

  6. John, thanks for the note and interesting application to music education. I’ll have to check that out.

  7. Fred, great point about LD spec (and some previous efforts at team design) focusing “too much on professional lesson planners codifying plans for other, mere mortal teachers to carry out”. I can’t speak for Lumen or Soomo, but I think a key issue is to focus on team design, where LD “experts” and faculty are parts of a collaborative process. Some previous efforts assumed one was in the service of the other rather than finding the right team approach.

    Keep watch for episode 6 (probably coming out Friday or Monday) that will be based on an interview with faculty member who moved from solo course design to team-based course design for the first time. She discusses what it was like for such a faculty member to go through this transition.

  8. Bill Zobrist says:

    Surprised there was no mention of Learning Design as one of the most critical elements of courseware.

  9. Bill, as Fred’s and James’ posts illustrate, there are a lot of things we can mean by “learning design.” Fred is referring to a formal IMS technical specification which never got a lot of traction. James is referring more broadly to a field of research and tools (prominently including the Learning Activity Management System, or LAMS, which James fathered) that takes a particular philosophy about articulating learning goals and strategies. Though more widely adopted than the IMS LD specification, I don’t see this sort of Learning Design employed in the development of most courseware on the market today (although I would like to see more of it). Folks in the publishing industry tend to use “learning design” more broadly still to mean something like instructional design. I find that usage of the term to be mostly devoid of concrete meaning and therefore avoid it. Both Kim and David talked about the value of design based on learner behavior and input, which I think is the important intention of the loosest usage of “learning design”.

    On a related note, the discussion threads for e-Literate TV episodes are intended to invite non ed-techies into the conversation, so I would ask all participants to bear that in mind and resist the temptation to dive too deeply into the technical weeds. It’s OK to bring some of this stuff up, but let’s please keep at a level and in a context that is appropriate for all academic audiences.

  10. Kim Thanos says:

    Fred, would love to talk. I just sent a LinkedIn connection.

    On 2) faculty innovating themselves out of a job, we do significant work with open access institutions. In my experience, faculty members are keenly aware of the range of needs their students have in order to not only complete, but to develop knowledge and skills for academic, social and economic success. Where high-quality courseware does have the ability to lighten the load in course design and some aspects of delivery it is only increasing faculty effectiveness. Most of our faculty members are so stretched and better “tools” are desperately needed.

    I’ll reach out to chat. Thanks!


  11. Hey Michael, interesting take on learning design. I’d like to pick your brain about it. As part of the team that sells CourseConnect (Pearson’s outcomes-based courseware) along with our curriculum design services, the foundational methodology of this suite of products is Learning Design. This definition of “Learning Design”, as Bill is eluding to, is really the marriage between the learning sciences (cognitive psychology, neuroscience, ed psych, etc.) with agile software development practices to produce a foundational product that serves as accreditation ready for a course or program. This you probably know. We can dig further into the “4 Pillars” of this Learning Design methodology, but I wonder if this is the definition you say is devoid of meaning? If so, I would love to hear more about your opinion on this definition.

    Keep up the great work with these videos. They serve a fantastic purpose and really opens up constructive dialogue.


  12. John Gilmore says:

    I love your video player and the way you are bringing other stuff in and giving me options to consume in different ways. Did you build this video player?

  13. Nick, “learning design” is a term with a long academic heritage. It has its roots in something called “Educational Modeling Language” (EML), which was intended to be a machine-readable way to express all of the different pedagogical strategies that one might find in the classroom. That original work gave birth to two different loosely related streams of effort. One focused on the technical aspect of the modeling language itself, culminating in the IMS LD specification to which Fred refers. The other focused more on the anthropological aspects of codifying various classroom strategies and when they might be employed, as you would see in work like the pedagogical planners that James references. As a discipline with this heritage, it should be fairly clear why learning design would be relevant to courseware design. Good courseware should support the particular pedagogical strategies that are effective for teaching particular concepts or disciplines to students with particular kinds of needs. Learning design is intended to give us a common language to talk about what those strategies are and how they might be supported by software.

    That is not what Pearson is talking about when it refers to “learning design.” What you mean is, roughly, “our instructional design philosophy plus some principles that we have collected from related fields of research.” When Cengage uses the term—and they do—they mean, roughly, “our instructional design philosophy plus the principles that we have collected from related fields of research.” Which generally are not the same as Pearson’s. So when I say that the way the textbook publishers use the term is devoid of meaning, I’m not saying that you don’t actually mean anything when you use it. I’m saying that I can’t tell what you mean when you use it because you have your own, Pearson-specific definition. So when you use it, you’re not telling me anything useful about why I should prefer CourseConnect over other courseware products. It’s a little bit like telling me that CourseConnect has farfegnugen. I know it’s supposed to be a good thing, but I don’t know what good thing it is.

    If we want to discuss CourseConnect’s design principles in a way that is going to be helpful to potentially adopting faculty, then we need to get more specific. For example, Soomo’s WebText products have a specific approach to formative assessments. It is different from CourseConnect’s approach. Both approaches could be said to be based on “science.” Faculty need to know (a) that any decent courseware product should have a clearly articulated approach to formative assessment that is backed by evidence of effectiveness, and (b) what your product’s approach to formative assessment is. There are probably a handful of such questions that are relevant to courseware design. We should identify and agree on what they are and come up with a name for the field of design that they collectively embody. But we shouldn’t call that field “learning design,” because that term is already taken.

  14. John, I’m glad that you like the platform. Phil and I love it too.

    e-Literate TV is jointly produced by MindWires Consulting—the company that Phil and I run together—and “IN THE TELLING, a company whose business can best be described as classroom flipping as a service. The video player is part of IN THE TELLING’s platform. So yes, “we” built the player, if “we” includes both companies.

  15. Thanks John and Michael for your comments and explanation. The TELLING STORY platform is responsively designed for mobile first use and for custom template creation for choreographing multi-modal content experiences. Michael and Phil played concerted roles in designing the Discover, Watch and Explore differentiated engagement views of the content enabling the user to choose the level of depth in which they engage the content. They also co-created and directed the choreography of the transmedia, telescoping content that unfurls in context along the visual narrative timeline. We collaborate with faculty, authors, and trainers to produce integrated digital storytelling experiences like this, it’s a co-creative process.

  16. Nick DiNardo says:

    Hi Michael,

    Well said, and couldn’t agree more. It’s our responsibility to be more clear with our design and it’s effectiveness with regard to student learning. Thanks for the detail. Looking forward to learning more based your insights and expertise. Talk soon!


  17. Lenora says:

    One of the best courseware development companies we’ve found is InstructionalMD. Check them out at

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