Market-related Decisions
Supplemental vs. Whole-Course
Should I make courseware to supplement other instructional materials or as a comprehensive solution?
Not all courseware is intended for the same use. Some providers build supplemental learning material, while others build courseware with more complex features to serve as the core student experience.

Which method produces better learning outcomes? Does courseware that is additive to other learning materials improve student outcomes more than courseware that functions as a one-stop shop for instruction, practice and assessment? Or vice versa? Does one choice affect business development more than another? Is the choice truly an either/or?

The Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) grant required participants to build a “course complete” product; each had to cover the content scope and sequence of a standardized course and be fully implemented in that course. Grantees found that whole-course products are much harder to implement in face-to-face and blended learning environments, but reported that students showed significant increases in learning. Supplemental and lighter courseware is easier to adopt and scale, but such products offer shallower opportunities for student engagement.

Pursuing adoption of whole-course products in academic settings is quite an undertaking. Because the courseware is designed for online learning, participating instructors have to figure out how to integrate lectures, assignments and assessments into teaching plans normally structured around dynamic classroom interaction. During the grant, for example, instructors wondered what to do while students were watching courseware lectures in the classroom. Should teachers work on something else, or stop and start the lecture to provide context? Moreover, the implementation of some features that are useful in a fully online classroom, such as discussion boards, aren’t immediately intuitive to instructors who teach in in-person settings. Using courseware effectively in a face-to-face environment necessarily impacts the structure of the delivery. Courseware developers should consider engaging with instructors and students in the product design phases of these tools in order to unlock the potential for better learning experiences in and outside the classroom.


Consider the scenarios at your institutions that warrant a supplemental solution versus a whole-course solution. How are you identifying those use cases? How are you enabling instructors to make the right choices around learning materials?

Anne Cafer, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi

Any whole-course product must be personalized to address institutional criteria and instructors’ teaching objectives. For providers, integrating your platform with an entire academic course is a lengthy process that requires close partnership with learning materials committees and with instructors themselves. If instructors aren’t fully aware of the courseware’s features or haven’t had time to integrate them into their teaching plans, your product may be treated simply as supplemental material, or just another digitized textbook. Instructors might not realize how much more they could do with whole learning courseware.

Supplemental courseware doesn’t have as many integration barriers because instructors can simply assign it as additional learning. That said, institutions can’t require teachers to assign supplementary courseware because these products aren’t tethered to curriculum standards in the way that whole-course products have to be. Students may question the utility of the courseware if it doesn’t account for a large part of their grade. Usage rates of courseware are worse when teachers call it “optional,” which students often hear as “unnecessary to pass this class.” With fewer incentives for teachers and students to fully embrace or even try supplementary courseware, these products demonstrate less impact on student success. OpenStax saw this play out when it rolled out the lighter version of Tutor, called Concept Coach.

“Many students used Concept Coach, but a considerable number did not use the tool as consistently as we hoped. After investigating, we learned that many instructors didn't require their students to use the tool for credit. Reasons for this varied and later addressed them in OpenStax Tutor Beta.”

Kim Jones Davenport, Product Manager at OpenStax

The NGCC experience showed that, in general, whole-course products make a stronger impact on student success than courseware designed to be supplemental. But the deeper investment in content development is significant, as is the work of ad hoc integration in analog classroom environments.

Best Practices
Supplemental vs. Whole-Course

Make sure to train instructors on all of your product’s capabilities so that they understand both the usability and educational value of the full feature set. Don’t assume that instructors will be able to figure everything out on their own. This can lead to treating whole-course products as supplemental material.

Encourage instructors to appropriately curate additional instruction to connect courseware learning with the real world without overwhelming the students. In face-to-face and blended teaching environments, the most excited and motivated instructors find creative ways to build on the material in courseware products.

Understand and internalize your partner institution’s digital learning strategy—assuming they have one in place. Campuses with an articulated digital learning strategy have set expectations across the institution and can help you meet those needs.