No, really, courseware is a thing now

In the operating plan slide deck that Cengage recently released as a consequence of their bankruptcy proceedings, the executive summary slide says that a key element of their strategy is “driving aggressive digital growth in a course model.” “Course solutions” is mentioned three times in the deck as well. Cengage, as a company, is essentially betting its future on courseware. Not just digital products in general, but courseware in particular.

But they are hardly the only provider building content in this relatively new category. I thought it might be useful to provide a run-down of who is doing what in this space. It turns out that there is a pretty wide range in terms of approaches to the product category.

I’ll start with the big publishers and then work my way to some non-traditional players. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does give a sense of the range of activity that is going on.

Cengage MindTap

I have written about MindTap a couple of times before, so I won’t spend a lot of time here. Basically, it provides a unified, flexible, and easy-to-use environment for readings, quizzes, and class interactions. It’s very teacher-focused in the sense that a lot of thought has been put into making course setup and customization simple. The main thrust of MindTap is making it easy for instructors to take knit together both the content and assessment components that they get from Cengage and any materials or activities that the professor brings to the table into a relatively seamless pedagogical and navigational structure. One of the ways that it does this is by providing rich integration with LMSs and a range of web 2.0 tools. At this point, MindTap doesn’t have adaptive learning or, in many cases, overarching instructional design. Rather, it’s a relatively platform-centric approach to the courseware product category.

McGraw Hill SmartBooks

SmartBooks are very different from MindTap. Based on the LearnSmart adaptive technology from Area 9, the heavy focus is on getting students to answer objective questions that map to passages in the textbook. The assessment and eBook are tied together tightly, so that parts of the book are highlighted differently based on the student’s answers on the assessments. Quite a bit of thought is put into retesting students on review questions at regular intervals, motivating them through progress indicators, and so on. The SmartBook vision is narrower (though no less ambitious) than that of MindTap in the sense that it is more traditionally book-centric. The goal is to make the book as effective as it can be at doing what it does rather than creating deeper integration between curricular materials and classroom experiences. It’s fairly student-centric in that its primary value is in helping students to study. There are some useful roll up reports for faculty and some ability to customize, but those are ancillary to the core value. That said, adaptive, mastery learning-based products like these do lend themselves to classroom flipping fairly readily.

Pearson CourseConnect

Before there was courseware, there were course cartridges. CourseConnect falls squarely into that tradition. Technologically, these products are, in fact, course cartridges that plug into your LMS, with a few bits that are hosted on Pearson’s servers and are called from the cartridges. These products are aimed at distance learning professors as their primary adopters. Because of their technological heritage, these products are least-common-denominator in terms of functionality, focusing instead on instructional design as their primary differentiator. The course structures are uniform from product to product, based on instructional design principles that the company has identified as important for their product line. They may not be as technologically sexy as MindTap or SmartBooks, but they have a pedagogical vision for what courseware should be.

Interestingly, CourseConnect is the basis for another Pearson product line called Propero. Propero isn’t courseware; it’s courses. Pearson has essentially swapped out any subjective assessments in CourseConnect for machine graded ones (except for in English Composition, where writing assignments are graded by humans), bundled some hours with some virtual tutors, and added a few more enhancements that make these courses suitable for students to take them in a self-paced manner. They are marketed as options for earning college credit at the student’s home institution and are ACE-endorsed. This is a good example of the thin line between the courseware and course product categories.


For most of its life, WileyPLUS has been more of a courseware erector set than actual courseware. Basically, the publisher took all the book content, ancillaries, and quizzes they had, indexed them by learning objective, and let faculty search and filter by those learning objectives within a basic LMS-like environment. Recently, Wiley has announced their Orion adaptive learning platform. It has the same basic concept behind it as McGraw Hill SmartBooks, i.e., students get shown what content they need to work on based on quiz results. At the moment, there are very few titles with Orion support in them because it is so new. Like SmartBooks, the vision for it is fairly narrow and book-centric in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to integrate deeply with the teacher’s curricular design so much as it tries to augment the effectiveness of the textbook as a traditional tool for class prep.

Lumen Learning

Lumen Learning is an effort to create OER-based courseware. Grown out of the grant-funded Kaleidoscope Project, Lumen is a for-profit company run by Kim Thanos and David Wiley that’s more of a service provider than a traditional publisher. They facilitate development of OER-based courseware by faculty at their client schools, using frameworks like Quality Matters. Although the content is mostly LMS-agnostic, Lumen is hosted on Instructure Canvas and takes advantage of the features of that platform, particularly for analytics purposes. It can be an interesting exercise to compare Lumen’s courses with similar Pearson CourseConnect courses, since they both have roughly the same technology base and (very) roughly similar audiences but substantially different design processes.

Soomo Publishing

Soomo is a small born-digital publisher. Like Lumen and Pearson CourseConnect, their Webtext product’s main strength is in the course design rather than the technology. They are probably the most “writerly” of the courseware providers that I’ve seen in the sense that they put a lot of emphasis on tone and actually succeed in making products that can be fun to read at times. They do have their own platform, which is more focused on the reading experience than you will get from LMS-based entrants in the category. But it doesn’t have the fancy adaptive capabilities of a McGraw Hill SmartBook or a WileyPLUS Orion, nor does it have the fancy integration capabilities of a Cengage MindTap. Rather, its main strengths are delivering good usability and providing the publisher and instructor with some useful analytics.


In some ways the granddaddy of academic courseware, the Open Learning Initiative out of Carnegie Mellon University has adaptive courseware, but not in the same sense that LearnSmart and WileyPLUS Orion are adaptive. The latter focus adaptivity at the learning objective level, while OLI really digs deep to adapt to student needs within learning objectives. This is what’s known as an “inner loop,” and it is grounded in research on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITSs), much of which was pioneered at CMU. The university just announced that they are spinning off a commercial arm of OLI called Acrobatiq, run by former Flat World Knowledge President Eric Frank and staffed by some long-time OLI folks.

Adapt Courseware

Adapt is a small courseware company that has taken an approach that is somewhat similar to OLI in the senses that (a) they have a mastery learning approach, and (b) they have “inner loop” adaptivity (although I know less about the details of how that inner loop works than I do about OLI’s). Their product is also adaptive in the sense that the assessment question difficulty adjusts to match the individual student’s level of mastery. Their content presentation starts with short, professionally produced videos, which are doubled by textual content that is largely the same. Students can choose to either read of watch, or they can skip right to the exercises.

Various MOOC Providers

I won’t belabor the point here, since Phil and I have both written about it multiple times already, but all this talk of “MOOC 2.0” or “distributed flips” is really about the MOOC as courseware. I have yet to see a MOOC that was explicitly designed with this purpose in mind, but it’s only a matter of time before they start showing up (if they aren’t out there already).

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to No, really, courseware is a thing now

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    Michael, you cannot imagine what good timing this post is. I have to go share this with someone pronto – for now: THANK YOU! (I was sharing with him earlier today your prior post about courseware, the one with the nifty graphic.)

  2. Glad to be of service, Laura.

  3. John Kline says:

    Hi Michael. Great summary. You have SmartBooks in there, but not the other McGraw product – Connect (or Connect Plus). Do you see that as Courseware? I guess the integration of textbook content into a CMS makes the offering more of a course. Curious to hear what you think. Our small company (Connect for Education) create courses that also integrate book content into an LMS (our own) – creating a turn key solution for an instructor-led course. In our case – we only do college music. Our titles are adopted like textbooks for online, face to face and hybrid courses. I wonder where we fit in?

  4. Julie Curtis says:

    Thanks for the excellent round-up and insight on each of these players doubling down on the future of courseware. There are also periodic stirrings about the future of the “course” as a construct. What is your perspective about what’s happening with courseware in light of where the notion of a “course” is (or isn’t) heading?

  5. John, both MGH Connect and, based on your description, your product would be classified as “courseware.” The dividing line between courseware and a course is a fuzzy one, but one very clear signal of the difference would be that a course usually (but not always) comes with some sort of credit or certification.

    Julie, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on the answer to your question.

  6. Julie Curtis says:

    Way to string your readers along, Michael …. : )

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