Their goal: generate greater impact and mastery for learners. Sometimes edtech providers push pedagogic boundaries to the point that colleges and universities find the courseware experience too unfamiliar to fit into their curriculum and align with their instructional practices.
Courseware providers must choose between building a product that fits with the current state of instructional practice on campuses, and building something that pushes market expectations. This tension isn’t unique to education, of course. Many innovative products that “push the envelope” struggle to engage customers at first. During the Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) grant, participants whose products had a steeper learning curve for faculty (from ramping up on product advancements to significantly changing methods of instruction) experienced longer adoption cycles. This ultimately slowed the sales cycles in the early stages but proved fruitful later, driving customer success and high retention. On the other hand, providers that built courseware that resembled the user experience and pedagogical approaches in line with traditional textbooks and learning management systems (LMS) approaches found the sales pitches easier to make.
Does your institution have a digital learning strategy that can help you determine whether the courseware you are in the market for is cutting-edge? Does this strategy help you determine whether you have the ecosystem in place to implement it?
Building innovative learning products means competing against traditional textbooks and other known tools for faculty’s attention. Instructors often have limited time to learn new products, especially at schools with fewer resources and a higher percentage of underserved students. Although it is easy to chalk up resistance to change to the lack of time on the instructor’s part, providers should reflect on their roles and responsibilities to bring users along. Courseware providers who are looking to lower the barriers to adoption for instructors should focus on building products that are designed for ease of use. Also, it will be important to consider the availability and quality of training for instructors who pilot your product, especially during onboarding but throughout the course as well.
“Courseware innovations do not displace their predecessors; they join them in the marketplace.”
All that said, building for market fit may not be enough. The edtech market is already full of both traditional solutions and their digital variations. Publishers have seen textbook rentals, textbook bundling and eTextbooks take universities by storm. Many solutions help students save money compared to traditional textbook purchases. In this competitive market, courseware providers building digital variations of analog resources must clearly demonstrate to faculty how the product improves on existing experience, helps learners achieve mastery, and saves students’ money, too.
Noel Wilkin, Provost of the University of Mississippi
“Listening to the market early and being willing to change our development priorities was an important tactic to build efficiently. We think this approach is extremely well suited to building courseware... [since] we are trying to appeal to people who have a strong default purchase in mind (publishers) and need to be convinced that something new is truly valuable.”
Andrew Smith Lewis, CEO of Cerego
Courseware providers navigate a turbulent relationship between tech innovation and instructional practice on college campuses. The friction is partly due to difficulty defining the role of courseware in traditional learning environments, but it’s also due to negative interactions between courseware providers and faculty during adoption and implementation. According to Tyton Partners’ 2017 Time for Class update, while faculty opinion of courseware has somewhat improved over the last few years, administrators’ good opinions have actually declined.
So, are you damned if you innovate and damned if you don’t? The best option may be to pursue both routes. Develop your initial value proposition as something familiar and easily implemented. Captivate faculty and institutional interest, and then start layering in the cutting-edge features that add the learning experiences that market-fit products simply cannot provide. Here’s how you might manage and maintain that balance:
Know your value proposition. Develop a strong understanding of your market position compared to close competitors. Be able to articulate the unique value that your courseware brings to institutions.
Make getting and maintaining product market fit a key goal. Most early stage companies tend to build for early adopters and innovators and then miss the mark with early majority as those segments have very different needs than the innovators.
Check your thinking with users and be agile. When innovating features and piloting a new product, gather faculty and student feedback. Ask what they like today as well as what they’d like to see tomorrow.
Plan longer sales cycles for cutting-edge products. If you’re creating an experience that may be unfamiliar, build more room into your sales cycle for faculty adoption. Make onboarding procedures for faculty both rigorous and thoughtful. (See “Faculty vs. Institution Sales Approach” for additional recommendations.)
Build product versions on a feature spectrum. Light versions of courseware are not only suited to institutions with limited implementation capabilities; they’re also a way to get the conversation rolling about the more complex or advanced solutions you can offer.
Lumen is known as a provider of open education resources (OER) digital textbooks. Although the company stretched into a new part of the digital materials market when it embarked on the NGCC grant, its reputation for eTextbooks turned out to be greatly beneficial. Lumen found that its simpler solutions could be conversation starters with prospective customers. Given the familiarity and lower price point of the digital textbook, institutions and faculty felt comfortable approaching Lumen about a digital solution. With that door open, Lumen introduced faculty and institutions to Waymaker, its courseware solution. Even though the features and benefits of Waymaker made it slightly more expensive than eTextbooks, faculty were willing to adopt the new product. For Lumen, the key was engaging faculty with known solutions and then helping them see that the courseware was only one or two steps beyond their current practices.