Product-related Decisions
Standard vs. Custom Experience
Should my offering be intended for off-the-shelf adoption?
In a utopian world, courseware providers build software and curriculum that seamlessly integrates into instructors’ workflows, regardless of how they teach. In real life, of course, no off-the-shelf courseware product is fantastic enough to win over every instructor.

This isn’t a new tension; even physical textbooks don’t provide ready-made learning solutions. Instructors must customize their use in order to fit specific contexts and teaching practices. Courseware design, even more so, enables instructors to customize a course before delivering it to students.

However, the actual percentage of instructors who make significant changes to courseware is small. Instead, “the prevailing approach is for instructors to scan the market and adopt off-the-shelf courseware that aligns closely with their instructional approach and content goals,” says Alison Pendergast, chief marketing and strategy officer at Acrobatiq. Customization is becoming a clear adoption requirement. But if you create courseware with robust customization features, the product may overwhelm instructors with too many options.


When assessing courseware for adoption, individual instructors will typically conduct a gap analysis based on their current solution. Consider how making those needs visible to your courseware vendors can head off resistance to change.

Courseware providers agree that the disconnect between instructors’ intentions to customize and their ultimate adoption of off-the-shelf solutions derives from their limited time. This situation is nothing new in higher education. Customizing course material or creating course content from scratch is time consuming. It would require proper incentives for investing significant instructor time—already a scarce commodity—into iterating their teaching practices.

Knowing that the majority of instructors will typically adopt off-the-shelf offerings, the question for courseware providers becomes, “How do we build truly impactful courseware in an off-the-shelf offering?” But the lack of universally accepted curriculum standards and course criteria stands as a major challenge. Across the country, the scope and sequence of topics and learning objectives vary from school to school, and even instructor to instructor. This reality makes it difficult to design and develop off-the-shelf courseware that is both suited for broad adoption and scalable to specific academic contexts.

“As a result [of the lack of universally accepted standards], we chose to focus our efforts on developing the platform, tools and services that would enable education teams to more easily customize and align the courseware to local program needs.”

Alison Pendergast, former Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at Acrobatiq

In the end, the right approach comes down to your organization’s philosophical understanding of your company and product. What is the underlying purpose of the product and its inherent value to the user? On which aspects are you willing to compromise? Different stakeholders on your team will have differing answers to these questions. For example, marketers may lean toward standardizing the product in the hope of scaling adoption, while engineers may want to find technical options for customization to deepen user engagement. Courseware providers that have dealt with this tension offer a few best practices and words of caution to consider when choosing your approach:


To learn more about who instructional designers are and how to tap them to support your digital learning implementations, read the Intentional Futures report, Instructional Design in Higher Education.

Best Practices
Standard vs. Custom Experience

Integrate with the institution’s LMS, or features of it, to tap into a widespread learning infrastructure that will ease adoption and promote scale. Instructor familiarity with the LMS also eases adoption of the new tool.

Don’t forget professional development. Successfully implementing adaptive courseware requires substantive instructor training and development, particularly as it relates to modifying teaching practices.

Leverage instructional designers at institutions where they’re available to support instructors by customizing the course to their liking and to instructional design principles.

Design for data collection to ensure the platform has what it needs for true personalized learning. Watch out for over-simplifying interactions, which can limit data collection.

Don’t assume a feature or interaction in the software should be “obvious” to the user.

Watch out for building an experience that requires an unrealistic lift at the institution to configure.

Case Study
Onboarding with Ease

OpenStax focused on a simplified, low-cost onboarding strategy for its courseware, saving the time and resources typically needed in a traditional sales marketing model. In fall 2017, it successfully launched the OpenStax Tutor Beta marketing website with self-serve onboarding for instructors. In both usability testing and instructor interviews, users consistently described onboarding as simple, relatively straightforward, and as good or better than competitors’ products.