July 18, 2023
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the use of courseware at colleges. Parts 2 and 3 are here and here.
Andrew Romano can’t remember having a single conversation with his physics professor sophomore year.
The recent graduate of Oakland University, in Michigan, would submit his assignments and exams online for the introductory, asynchronous course, which had at least 100 students. Everything, including his final exam, was auto-graded. It all made for an underwhelming, and often frustrating, learning experience.
“There were never ways we could learn from the instructor,” said Romano, who double-majored in political science and environmental science. “It was just a really weird class.”
Romano’s instructor was using a courseware product from the publishing titan Cengage. In a departure from traditional supplementary class materials, like textbooks, many courseware tools offer the “soup to nuts” of an entire course: Not only the digital version of a textbook, but homework assignments and assessments that an instructor can select from a bank of premade options. Educational videos, slide presentations, and study flashcards. Auto-grading and performance-analytics capabilities.
These products often can’t be unbundled, so while students purchase the whole slate, faculty members decide how little — or how much — of the courseware services to use.
While such products rarely come up in the public discourse about higher education, they’ve become a staple across in-person, hybrid, and virtual college classrooms alike. About one-third of faculty members who responded to the 2022 Faculty Watch survey from the National Association of College Stores reported using “access codes and adaptive learning products,” terms commonly associated with leading courseware products like MindTap (Cengage), Connect (from McGraw Hill), and MyLab (from Pearson) — a figure that has gradually increased since the first survey in 2016.