Market-related Decisions
Breadth vs. Depth in Product Portfolio
How many disciplines should my courseware product span?
Courseware providers face a critical decision about which field(s) of study to emphasize in products. For example, should your company dive deeply into the physical sciences and/or branch into the humanities?

This classic tension of breadth versus depth is important because content development is one of the most expensive investments in courseware. While a provider may be tempted to invest deeply in a specific discipline, especially one with larger markets, doing so may limit future business opportunities that exist in other discipline markets. On the other hand, going for breadth may sacrifice the technical sophistication that a discipline (such as biology) may require. Most grantees of the Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) program that we're early-stage companies found success by first establishing a reputation within a specific discipline (go deep), and then expanding to other disciplines with an established customer base (go broad).


Is breadth or depth more important to your institution when selecting a vendor for your courseware needs? Given the limitations on either end of the spectrum, how do you think about scaling courseware at your institution?

“Courseware is not like a textbook. When an individual faculty member adopts a different textbook, it doesn't affect anybody else most of the time, but when an individual faculty member decides to go off and buy Acrobatiq for biology, it does have a ripple effect.”

Yvonne Belanger, Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Barr Foundation, formerly of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

At this writing, bundling access to a diverse set of material (such as inclusive access models) is more prediction than trend, and evidence is anecdotal at best. However, if it proves true, courseware providers will have to make plans to expand their offerings beyond a couple of discipline areas. As more teaching media transforms from physical to digital, these materials more frequently integrate with institutional systems such as the learning management system (LMS). Colleges and universities reasonably seek to maximize digital investments and minimize the number of third-party vendors. Some may start bundling their content purchases and partnering with courseware providers offering broader selection. Institutions may also seek to narrow their selection of providers so that they can customize the experience in deeper ways to suit their needs.

“The most obvious obstacle for smaller providers is one of limited resources that preclude broad portfolios that could address the heterogeneous needs of institutions. Large publishers have the means to simultaneously offer multiple courseware products that fit most archetypes across many disciplines and courses.”

Tyton Partners, Time for Class Report, Part II

Textbook publishers have the advantage of existing market penetration in all academic fields. In addition, many publishers are moving toward all-inclusive pricing models that secure revenue for all students in a course, allowing publishers to hold onto market share. For example, the Cengage Unlimited plan allows students access to thousands of textbooks across fields of study for a reasonable per-semester fee.

Even if you offer comparably low prices for one or two disciplines, the offering may not be competitive against a bundled deal. One edtech market expert speculates that it would be unlikely for institutions to consider a lower price for students on a few courses to be a better deal than sourcing all content from a single company. In this case, the obvious choice for courseware providers is to go broad as well as deep.

In the end, the tension remains: Will standout individual courseware products or generic courseware experiences designed for any subject content win the market? It may be too soon to tell as the market continues to evolve with shifting business models.

Writing Faculty at the University of Mississippi

Best Practices
Breadth vs. Depth in Product Portfolio

Go deep, then broad. Build your initial product framework with one or two courses in the same discipline area. Launch with the aim of gathering feedback on the platform experience, and plan to expand content quickly to other academic subjects during the first sales cycle. This way, institutions can plan to broaden the deployment to other departments.

Use OER. Because course content is such a big expense, consider using OER to hasten development of additional courses. Use OER wisely, and remember the importance of developing high-quality course content that supplements the generic OER content as part of your value proposition. See Content vs. Platform-focused for more recommendations.

Enable expertise. Some products rely on outside experts or crowdsourcing to add depth to their content. Consider how you might add depth through mechanics such as guest blog posts or up-voting on questions and answers.