Feuding Over Digital Courseware

The debate over digital courseware's adoption suffers from oversimplification, writes Gates Bryant, who breaks down the nuances of the important discussion.

July 14, 2015

The mudslinging in the debate over the use of digital courseware has reached Hatfield-and-McCoy levels of feuding. I have heard at least one higher education leader say, “The only faculty that are afraid of being replaced by digital courseware are those who deserve to be replaced by digital courseware.” Also heard are descriptors such as: rigid, skeptical, curmudgeon, Luddite, etc. On the other side, there are the “reformers” and “disruptive innovators” who are criticized for seeing technology as a panacea.

The enthusiastic debate about digital courseware’s adoption and its impact on student outcomes is caused in part by mounting pressure on faculty to change and, especially, to use more technology in their teaching. Too often, though, faculty are considered as a monolithic group, facing the same challenges across many different types of institutions and student populations. Our research shows that this oversimplifies the perspectives of faculty and the challenges that institutions and instructors face as they grapple with elevated outcome expectations and capacity constraints.

There is more texture to the debate than the view that it’s about brash proponents of using digital courseware squaring off with change-resistant opponents. And this oversimplification sprouts problems beyond mischaracterizations of faculty. The common belief that faculty members are blockers to digital curriculum adoption pushes those who are attempting to advance technology use on campus to adopt strategies that circumvent faculty members instead of directly engaging them. This creates a harmful cycle in which the concerns of faculty members are not addressed, new platforms are created or adopted with incomplete information, and administrators and faculty members on both sides of the technology-adoption debate remain frustrated.

So, what’s really behind faculty members’ resistance? Fundamentally, most faculty are open to using digital courseware, but are so dissatisfied with the prevailing user experience that they are unlikely to recommend their current digital curriculum to a colleague. In surveying 2,700 faculty and administrators in the summer of 2014, our research identified four unique faculty groups on campuses across the United States. Common attributes, behaviors and mind-sets among faculty in these groups help to uncover the layers underneath faculty members’ perspectives on digital curricula. Below is a chart that will help you identify which group you or your faculty fit into, and a snapshot of our findings on each group.

Off-the-Shelfers: This group is moderately open to the use of courseware. They represent 21 percent of faculty. Off-the-Shelfers are more heavily concentrated in public two-year institutions and career-focused disciplines. These individuals value ease of use and implementation and are less inclined to develop their own curricula than their peers. Additionally, analysis links their cost sensitivity to this institutional and discipline concentration.

Unconvinced Do-It-Yourselfers: This group is open to the use of courseware but is still looking for proven improved outcomes. They represent 25 percent of faculty. Unconvinced DIYers want control over curriculum decisions and are open to how courseware might enable this, however, they are not yet convinced that the cost of using courseware is worth the potential benefits.

Enthusiastic Do-It-Yourselfers: At 13 percent of the population, Enthusiastic DIYers look very similar to Unconvinced DIYers in their perceptions and preferences, but they report higher satisfaction with digital courseware than their peers. Generally, Enthusiastic DIYers have not earned tenure or are not on a tenure track and have been teaching for fewer than 10 years.

Lecturing Skeptics: Representing 31 percent of all faculty, Lecturing Skeptics are the faculty most likely to deliver instruction through a lecture format, the least likely to instruct online. They are most likely to prefer proven teaching methods. These are the more traditional drivers of the teaching and learning process, to whom digital courseware has yet to prove itself. Lecturing Skeptics are more likely to teach in arts and social science disciplines than members of other segments.

When faculty survey respondents were asked whether they would recommend their courseware product to a friend or colleague at their own or another institution, only one of the four segments, Enthusiastic DIYers, exhibited a positive net promoter score (NPS), meaning that a greater portion of the group would be promoters of courseware than would be detractors. The negative NPS from three of the four groups of faculty reflects the overall level of dissatisfaction with courseware that faculty members feel.

What does this all mean? Ultimately, we found that each faculty group reveals insights that can be used to engage with those who are unconvinced and skeptical. For courseware developers, these findings are a loud call to rethink their approach to user input in their design process. The truth is that faculty are decision makers and key stakeholders. They have influence to redefine the courseware category and to improve the experience for students and faculty. More than anything, internal and external stakeholders and decision makers need to understand these faculty groups and what is driving their behavior. Ongoing failure to listen and respond to faculty needs will only reinforce resistance.

Digital curricula in the hands of supported and equipped instructors have significant potential to personalize learning and to lead to the delivery of high-quality education that meets the needs of today’s postsecondary students. But that impact will only be realized if technology solutions are able to successfully scale. New offerings with greater capacity to adapt to faculty needs are unlikely to transition from pilot to scale unless more than just the early adopters or “tech-savvy” faculty are engaged from the beginning.

The legendary 1870s feud between West Virginia families the Hatfields and the McCoys -- from disputes over land, prized pigs, interfamily romances and no fewer than 10 revenge killings -- wasn’t a simple one, either. (But the families did reunite in 1979 for a more palatable version on the game show Family Feud -- no joke!) Only by moving the conversation from oversimplified mischaracterizations to engagement of all faculty in the process to address needs and the barriers to adoption will we be able to redefine the digital courseware experience and achieve personalized learning for all students.


Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, which provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors.


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