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Build, buy, or customize: Which type of digital learning solution is right for you?

Approx 6 minute read

Patti O'Sullivan, Instructor and Program Manager, Externally Funded Academic Innovation Projects, University of Mississippi

Patti O'Sullivan, Instructor and Program Manager, Externally Funded Academic Innovation Projects, University of Mississippi

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Build, buy, or customize: Which type of digital learning solution is right for you?

You’ve decided to adopt a digital learning solution to solve a specific problem in your classes. Now an equally important choice quickly follows: should you build a custom course, buy off-the-shelf-courseware, or start somewhere between the two?

In managing an adaptive courseware grant at the University of Mississippi, I’ve observed that many faculty tend to default to the digital platform provided by the publisher of their preferred textbook. What often happens in this situation is that once they use the platform for a couple of semesters, they grow frustrated by the limited functionality of the courseware in terms of customization and actionable data.

What’s likely happening in these situations is that the faculty selected a solution based on content, not based on its ability to address their specific needs or challenges. To avoid this pitfall, I recommend flipping the process: rather than selecting courseware because it pairs with a particular textbook, evaluate options based on what best suits the needs of your course. To help guide you through this process, I’ll break down the different approaches you can take and share the key questions to consider that can inform your decision.

Move-in Ready, Custom Build or Renovation Project?

Choosing digital learning courseware is a little like buying a home – before making a purchase, you first have to decide what you’d like your new house to look like, what features you want it to have, and how much time and effort you’re willing to put in to bring that vision to life.

  • Off-the-Shelf Courseware

    Selecting off-the-shelf digital courseware is similar to buying a house that’s move-in ready. The new owners don’t have to do much to settle in – in fact, the house comes fully furnished – but the space and features aren’t designed around their needs. This type of courseware is often sold as part of a course package that includes a textbook, test banks, prepared lecture slides, and a homework and quizzing system. While there is work to be done, it amounts to the equivalent of moving around the furniture: aligning the publisher learning objectives with those of the course, training faculty and students to use the platform, and integrating the platform into your learning management system.

  • Customizable Courseware

    The second category of digital learning platforms is customizable courseware. The course is still pre-built – often pairing open-educational resources with an open digital learning platform – but the course can be edited and configured in more depth to directly align with your curriculum and approach to teaching. This option is like renovating a home before moving in. You may like the neighborhood, and the house has great bones, but you have a vision and a plan for how to make the house your perfect home. Like off-the-shelf courses, customized courseware also can be aligned with course learning objectives and assessments. Additionally, content or chapters may need to be reorganized or revised to match your course outline. You also may want to add supplemental content such as video and practice activities. Significant edits may require technical assistance from the vendor or in some cases, can’t occur once the course is live.   

  • Custom-Built Digital Course

    Much like building your own home, courseware that you custom build in a digital learning platform requires a clear vision. With custom-built courses, you select all the content used in the course. That may include a textbook, but more often the content is original or curated from open educational resources (OER) or third-party sources. Formative and summative assessments in custom-built courses are developed by you, the faculty, rather than a publisher, and you have the ability to edit the content and assessments at any time – even while the course is live. Building a course from the foundation can be a lot of work, but it’s not more effort than is needed for any course redesign project. In the end, you will have a fully integrated learning experience customized to your needs and specifications.

Build, Buy or Customize? 5 Questions to Ask Before Making a Choice

All three of these digital learning approaches typically involve four components: content, practice, assessments, and analytics. As you explore your options, think about what your goals and needs are in each of these areas and how well each type of digital courseware solution can deliver on this. As you begin your decision process, consider these five questions:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?

    The answer to this question is the most important factor in your choice of courseware. Are you trying to increase student engagement? Decrease DFW rates? Close the achievement gap? Open more communication channels with students? Add active learning? Reduce the grading burden? Once you identify the problem you are trying to solve, you can begin to vet different platforms for a solution. One good place to learn about digital courseware is EdSurge’s Product Index. While the list is not exhaustive, it does provide a good overview of the functionalities of various platforms, and it includes a filter for comparing products side-by-side.

  2. What resources are available to assist you?

    Given that different approaches to courseware require varying levels of work and know-how to implement, this question is an important one to consider. Find out whether your campus has a Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Office of Campus Technology or similar group that’s intended to be a resource for faculty interested in leveraging digital learning solutions. Instructional designers are another excellent resource that may be part of one of these teams. Graduate students, too, can provide support in terms of any testing and quality assurance that needs to be done.

    Additionally, ask the service providers you’re considering about their tools and tech support. Some platforms offer fairly straightforward authoring and editing tools designed to function like familiar word-processing and slide-presentation tools. However, some platforms use more complex authoring tools that require training or the assistance of the vendor’s technology and design teams. Knowing more about the available training and support ahead of making your platform choice will save you a lot of time and headaches down the road. 

  3. How much control would you like over the course?

    Think back to the four components of the teaching and learning experience digital platforms can provide. How much control do you want to have over elements like content, practice and assessments? Do you want to be able to remove course content your particular class does not cover? Do you anticipate wanting to add content to the course or edit what’s there? Would you like to be able to write your own homework and quiz questions? Are you hoping to adjust the settings for homework or quizzes? Are there functions of the courseware you want to disable? Off-the-shelf platforms tend to offer the least control for faculty because they are mass-produced for a wide audience, while custom course builds tend to offer the most, as you can control every component both during the creation process and once the course is in use.

  4. How will the digital platform impact access for students?

    Access has multiple components in the context of higher education. A critical one is ADA compliance. Whichever approach you choose, look into whether it complies with ADA regulations, including captioned videos, alternative text for images and graphs, and text compatibility with screen readers. Another core aspect is cost, as students cannot access what they cannot afford. If you choose a platform aligned to a particular textbook, for example, will students have the option to purchase a less-expensive e-book rather than the physical text? If you select customizable or custom-built courseware, what will students pay? Often these are built using OER, which keep the materials low-cost for students.

  5. What support does the courseware offer for you?

    While the student learning experience is central to your selection of a courseware approach, also consider what the solution provides for you, as well. Are the analytics relevant and easy to use? Will they help inform your teaching and student interventions? Does the courseware include tools to help you better manage your classroom, such as auto-grading and immediate feedback for students?

More Resources to Inform Your Digital Learning Solution Decision

It is not easy to know what you want in a digital learning platform before actually using one, so don’t be afraid to ask service providers for access to a sandbox course where you can experience the platform in the student and instructor view. You might also consider reaching out to colleagues in your discipline who are using digital courseware for their advice; Every Learner Everywhere is putting together a list of faculty willing to share out their experiences using digital learning platforms. You can also find faculty users giving presentations at discipline-specific conferences and educational technology conferences. If you cannot attend these, browse the agendas for faculty presenters and reach out to them via email.

Finally, for whichever approach you choose, solicit feedback from your students throughout the implementation process and take the time to benchmark their performance before and after any changes go into effect. After all, the most important measure of the quality of any digital learning platform is whether it is effective in helping students learn – and helping you create and manage that learning experience for them.