Courseload Blog

Courseload Honored at Best Places to Work Dinner

by Courseload User on May 02, 2014

Members of the Courseload team accept a Best Places to Work award at a dinner last night. For more information on the award, read the full press release.

Courseload Team Picks Up Best Places to Work Award

When it comes to being prepared to learn, having textbooks and course materials on the first day of class seems almost a no-brainer. Yet with the cost of college textbooks increasing 82% over the past decade, students are finding it ever harder to meet this simple expectation. As the overall cost of higher education skyrockets, not all college-related expenditures incurred by students today are proportional to their purchasing power. According to the American Enterprise Institute, over the past three decades, the cost of textbooks has risen almost four times as much as the Consumer Price Index (CPI):

Cost of textbooks has risen 812% since 1978

Simultaneously, institutions are bundling library content charges into student fees, though this educational material accounts for 10% or less of what is actually used by students throughout their education career. The end result is that students have unlimited access to content they might not necessarily use, and limited or no access to required textbooks and course materials that are essential for success in their classes.

Finding Alternatives
On a student budget, a $300 textbook is a prohibitive expense. Seven out of 10 students in a recent survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) reported they had not purchased a textbook at least once due to high prices. As prices climb, students have found other ways around spending thousands on texts, not all of them legal. In a Spring 2013 report by USA Today, 34% of students reported downloading course content from an unauthorized website. For students who look to eTexts as a cost-saving alternative, navigating access codes, logins and passwords can be time-consuming, confusing, and frustrating. Altogether, the hoops students must jump through to ensure they have their texts on the first day of class can be a cumbersome ordeal, oftentimes resulting in a lack of preparedness.

Paying the Price
Not having textbooks on day one may be a reality for many students, but it is not one that comes without a price. In a study by the US PIRG, of over 2000 students, 65% reported not purchasing a textbook for class. Of those students, 94% said they were concerned about their grades being affected as a result of that decision. In many community colleges and for-profit institutions, a major cause for dropout is the student’s inability to purchase content on time, or even purchase it at all. Repeated studies have shown that student involvement in the classroom is critical to student success and retention. Furthermore, when students are actively involved in learning and sharing their learning with others, their engagement is even more enhanced. Without access to required course materials, student learning and success can be stunted.

Courseload Model
Institutions concerned about how the impact access to course materials has on retention and success are working with Courseload on a model that bundles the cost of educational resources into student registration at an affordable price. Through a single-sign-on integration with their Learning Management System, students are able to access their entire course content digitally from Day 1 with a simple click of a button, eliminating the need to manage additional log-ins and passwords.

Within Courseload Engage, instructors can enhance content-mediated learning with annotations, highlights of important concepts, homework questions, and many other features that help guide and promote student reading. Early studies show positive results both from Day 1 access to all content and early and frequent engagement with instructors. A recent study at Berkeley College found a 12.5% increase in retention among their first year online students, a portion of which can be attributed to the fact that these students had the content on day one.

College is difficult enough without adding obstacles associated with affordably obtaining textbooks and other course materials. Why not make them available on the first day at a reasonable cost and, while at it, enrich the content-mediated learning experience with a Learning Engagement Platform like Courseload?

Pedagogy Meets Usability at Courseload

by Etienne Pelaprat on Mar 18, 2014

“Supposing is good,” wrote Mark Twain, “but finding out is better.”

Nowhere is this quote more closely practiced than in user-centered design as a foundation for software development. But, what exactly is user-centered design? In essence, if you want to build software of value and import to users you:

  • Listen to your users and understand their actual needs, goals, and activities.
  • Observe users in their natural environment as they use your tools.
  • Talk with them about their experiences.
  • Vet ideas and designs with them during the prototype stage or, better yet, engage their participation in the design process itself.

As a user experience (UX) researcher at Courseload, I spend a lot of time observing and talking with instructors and students about the educational technologies they use every day, including Courseload Engage. Through this research, I learn about needs and goals of instructors, why teaching with technology can be onerous, and why students sometimes feel disengaged from digitally-mediated learning environments. The knowledge gained through UX research practices is central to Courseload’s user-centered design philosophy and the way we develop educational tools.

Our UX research practices also support our company’s mission of empowering institutions to make a successful transition to a digital learning environment. To do this, our UX team takes into account the entire institutional environment of stakeholders, practices, and tools that, collectively, play a role in successful teaching and learning. The “users” of our product are not always instructors and students. Indeed, we’re building tools for deans who need to understand why retention is up or down; department heads who need to flexibly adapt their course catalogs to match changing labor markets; or program chairs who need data to drive experiments with new kinds of content. From top to bottom, facilitating a successful transition to digital in higher education means designing and building products in a user-centered way.

User Experience and Context
User-centered research practices should be a common component of educational technology development. Outside of their academic institutions, students and instructors already live in a digital ecology of friendship, commerce, and work. They do so not simply (or even primarily) because the tools are there, but because those tools capture social context. Understanding context is the key to great UX research because it gets at the fundamental question of motivation, desire, and meaning that grounds user behavior and intentions. When software captures social context, understands user expectations, and situates tools in broader social practices around content, users have engaging, useful, and delightful experiences.

These lessons apply well to designing tools for teaching and learning. Actual user experience, like actual pedagogy, is situated in a context, not in technical or curricular requirements. For instance, consider one of the most popular features in Courseload Engage: the ability for students and instructors to “tag” their notes. “Tagging” is, of course, a popular feature that is available in many modern web applications. But in the context of pedagogical practices, tags take on certain uses and meanings. Through our UX research, we discovered that instructors use tags and guide students to use tags in various innovative ways:

  • Instructors guide student interaction with content through tagging certain passages of book as “required” and “optional.”
  • Students share notes with team members by using tags, such as “Team #1,” “Team #2,” etc.
  • Students use tags like “Exam 1” to more quickly find and organize notes with a particular goal in mind – studying for a particular test.

All of these uses tell us that instructors seek to leverage the context of the class—an exam, homework, or group presentation—for the activities mediated by the tool itself. What drives these activities is not that tags, as technical features, are useful in and of themselves. It is that they are able to capture some aspect of the context of instruction and learning. The question is: Are tags the best way to support that kind of context-construction? From a design and pedagogy perspective, what matters here is that to improve the “tagging” tool you must recognize ways of bringing in and cultivating course context as a vehicle for teaching and learning.

The Narrative is Key
Users describe their experiences in stories. Any instructor will tell you that teaching and learning unfolds in a social context, but the way they tell you is through a narrative about, for example, a particular teaching experience, a student outcome, or their surprise about an assessment. Every class is a unique experience because the context and students – i.e., the stories – are different. The art of pedagogy lies in being able to construct and sustain a context ripe for meaningful narratives to emerge.

A key aspect of Courseload’s product design philosophy is that we build tools that let users live in the narratives of their course. Consider, for example, how Courseload’s UX team addresses analytics. Courseload Engage has great data tools to capture and represent student interaction with content and the course. Where does the value of these analytics lie? In what ways should they be experienced? When we listen to instructors, as they view this data, we hear stories that attempt to explain why students performed as they did. To make sense of student engagement or performance, instructors try to put together a coherent story.

The assumption that the value of analytics lies in generating metrics is generally false. If the goal is to better understand what is going on with their students, instructors need the data to be represented in a way that presents a ‘story’ of engagement and performance. This is because student engagement is a judgment one makes based on observations of behavior– not a metric one can capture quantitatively. The more Courseload’s tools situate student behavior in a broader context and narrative, the better your judgment about engagement. While a computed engagement “score” may be driven by sophisticated models, it doesn’t offer a narrative that instructors can situate in the experience of teaching – and hence offers very little, indeed.

A Philosophy of Partnership
As a company that builds software to enable the transition from print to digital in higher education, we must understand how learning contexts are built; how students find them engaging; and how instructors and students mediate their pedagogical interactions through digital content. When it comes to pedagogy, the social context of instruction is nearly everything. It is the framework in which stories unfold and the garden in which learning grows.

But, partnership isn’t just about what we can learn from our institutional partners. It is also about ensuring that these partners learn from and participate in the knowledge and design necessary for making a successful transition to digital. Consequently, every finding made through our UX research and testing with students and instructors is shared with the leadership of our institutional partners. As the head of our UX team, I spend time with institutional coordinators discussing what we have learned and how what we have learned will inform future product design. Not only are these institutional coordinators excited about our direction, they also gain a sense of the scope and importance of the transition from print to digital in higher education.

Learn More
Interested in learning more about Courseload's user experience research and user-centered design? Here's how to contact me: etienne (AT) courseload (DOT) com

During discussions with partner institutions, we are often asked for guidance on the best way to recruit faculty for their etextbook and digital course materials program. Though many instructors may be aware of the benefits—lower costs for students, increased collaboration within course materials and improved student retention—they may feel wary of implementing new educational technology solutions.

Through our experience guiding a number of institutions as they initiate etextbook and digital course materials programs, we have observed the following strategies for successful faculty recruitment:

1. Set Appropriate Recruitment Goals
Where you stand in the process of implementing etextbooks and digital course materials will influence your recruiting efforts. In the initial discovery phase, there is benefit to recruiting a cross-section of instructors that will be representative of your institution: different departments, varying class sizes, multiple pedagogical styles and both the tech savvy and those with little technological understanding. For an honest evaluation of how an etextbook and digital course materials solution would work at your institution, you’ll benefit from faculty who are vocal and willing to give feedback on the potential benefits and challenges of an institution-wide implementation.

2. Find Your Champions
Every initiative needs its champions: those who can immediately see the benefits and also help make the benefits apparent to others. Faculty who assume the following roles become important allies during recruitment efforts:

  • Leaders: Always ‘leading the charge,’ this faculty member wants to understand every aspect of your initiative. They’ll assist you with faculty training and communication and help foster best-practice and user communities once the process is underway.
  • Tech Enthusiasts: Always ready to demonstrate new gadgets and looking for the next great app, this member of your faculty has a history of being on the cutting edge of technology. They’ll help you effectively communicate the technological features and benefits to potential users.
  • Innovators: Always willing to try something new, this member of your faculty scours the blogosphere and higher education journals looking for ways to breathe new life into the classroom. They are relentless in their desire to enhance the learning experience and they’ll help spread the word about the pedagogical benefits of your initiative.

3. Provide a Way to Experiment
As with any new technology, pre-conceived notions about how complicated it will be can hinder wide adoption. To prevent this potential obstacle, we recommend giving faculty an option to try out the technology prior to opting into a program. Courseload has assisted partner institutions with setting up ‘sandbox’ accounts for this very purpose and we often find that these trial accounts are a very valuable recruitment tool as faculty are able to experience, firsthand, the benefits offered by the new technology and how easy it is to use.

4. Develop a Communication Strategy
Effective communication is an often overlooked, but critical component, of recruitment efforts. The first step is to establish a resource to address all aspects of the program and set a lexicon for your initiative. Many of our institutional partners have been very successful in creating program websites that:

  • Articulate the goals and objectives of the program
  • Define terminology (e.g., differentiating between etextbooks and other digital course materials, such as audio, video and faculty-generated content) so that everyone speaks the same language
  • Explain the process for participation
  • Address frequently asked questions
  • Provide links to training videos and other resources
  • Establish contacts for additional questions and further discussion

Next, you’ll want to ensure that this key information is being effectively communicated to your faculty. In addition to getting the message out via the most effective channels at your institution—email, intranet, etc.—an open forum is a great way to ensure that the purpose your program is well understood. Whether in-person or via an online meeting solution, providing faculty an opportunity to ask questions and clearly comprehend the details of your program will assist in your recruiting efforts.

5. Focus on Benefits
Because many of your faculty may be motivated by different objectives, you’ll want to ensure that your communication and recruitment efforts acknowledge the variety of ways in which the solution will aid your faculty in achieving their goals. Some of Courseload’s current institutional partners focus on the following benefits in their faculty recruitment efforts:

  • Saving students money with negotiated discounts on etextbooks and the introduction of additional course materials from other low-cost sources
  • Teaching to various learning styles through the introduction of video, audio and other non-text materials to supplement course textbooks
  • Improving student retention and success with day-one access and conceptual guidance directly through text-based course materials
  • Active learning from student-student and student-instructor interaction and engagement within the course materials
  • Immediate access to learning materials ensures that learning can begin immediately and that all students are learning from the same materials

Each term brings another opportunity to engage new faculty in your digital course materials initiative and we hope that the strategies above, developed through our current institutional partnerships, will help you streamline your efforts and effectively communicate the purpose and benefits of your initiative. 

Guest Blog: Getting in the eText Game

by Courseload User on May 16, 2013

By Rand Spiwak, EdD, CEO, eTextConsult

Over the past few years, we have seen gradual advancement and acceptance of digital course materials. Considering that the traditional printed textbook has been the primary supplemental instructional tool for over five hundred years, it is no surprise that the electronic texts have faced hurdles associated with technology adoption and user acceptance. As I travel across the U.S., lecturing on the current state of eText technology (shorthand for other frequently used term such as eContent and eLearning materials), I am most encouraged to find:

  • A much greater degree of interest in eTexts on almost every campus.
  • Willingness to research and “test drive” this technology.
  • A better understanding of how eTexts can significantly reduce educational costs while having a positive effect on the learning process.

In my experience, administrators are seeking eText solutions that provide faculty and students with the greatest degree of flexibility, control over content, the ability to address multiple learning modalities, real accessibility–not just compliance, and significantly reduced costs for their students. Students and faculty are adopting eText and determining what functionality an eText should include. Limited financial resources are demanding a new, much lower-cost solution for textbooks and other course materials.

I’ve counseled a number of institutions on how to best tackle an eText initiative and I generally start with the following ten questions that must be answered to effectively venture into eTexts:

  1. How informed and knowledgeable is the institution about eText technology and platforms?
  2. What is the institution trying to accomplish with eText (e.g., significantly reduce textbook cost, improve student retention and/or engagement, etc.)?
  3. Does the institution have critical “buy-in” from all key areas of the institution?
  4. What, if any, are the timeline constraints with respect to pursuing eText (e.g., semester, system, etc.)?
  5. What tools or personnel are needed to ensure success (e.g., willing faculty, supportive administrators, etc.)?
  6. How will the institution measure for eText success (e.g., criteria, surveys, timing, etc.)?
  7. What will success mean for the future of eTexts within the institution (e.g., improved enrollments, increased student access, etc.)?
  8. What factors will affect how an institution adopts eText (e.g., willingness of faculty, student demand, etc.)?
  9. Does the institution need to address contractual obligations to third-party bookstore operators?
  10. How, if at all, will the implementation of eText affect other revenue and financial sources necessary to support institutional financial aid and other initiatives?

As you can see, there are many considerations in implementing an eText intiative. Though the task may seem daunting, the transition from textbooks to eText is a long-term solution with great benefit in reducing cost and improving outcomes that can be managed accordingly.

Dr. Rand Spiwak, of eTextConsult, is a consultant and public speaker, who specializes in assisting colleges and universities in the explanation, evaluation, organization and implementation of eText and eMaterials technologies. His past experience as a forty-one year institutional administrator and leader of an eText initiative, provide him a wide understanding of the needs and challenges in bringing a digital course materials initiative to fruition. Read more of Dr. Spiwak's views on how higher education institutions can prepare for a shift from print to digital course materials and etexts.

Dr. Rand S. Spiwak, CEO, eTextConsult, LLC
Phone: 386-212-7123

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Scott, Courseload’s Chief Technology Officer, to ask him some in-depth questions about our accessibility progress and commitment. Since beginning at Courseload in June, I've heard of our commitment to accessibility, but wanted more concrete answers to the thoughts behind our actions. Speaking with Steve gave me not only a technological insight, but a deeper understanding of what this commitment looks like and has been like for Courseload. 

Molly: What is Courseload’s Accessibility commitment? How has it evolved?

Steve: It’s really simple – a better, less expensive, and more engaging education for all regardless of abilities. We are committed to providing the best user experience possible for all users – now and in the future. In a changing ecosystem of content, pedagogy and technology, Courseload will lead the pack in inclusive usability. That’s how we define accessibility – making our product not only compliant with standards and guidelines, but USABLE by all. We started with an optimistic view of the world. We’re a technology company with very creative and bright people who look for better ways, so that is no surprise. What we learned in our research was that, while the future is bright with possibilities, we live in a very different world today. Our commitment to make a difference every step of the way meant we needed to put our heads not just into creating an appealing future but also into how to address the realities – now – today.  How useful would it be to provide a next generation platform when only a small fraction of desired content could be used with it?  How user-friendly would it be to require students using preferred assistive technologies to abandon tried and true tools to learn a totally new technology their school was piloting?   We had to take our future-state vision and create a map that gets us from here to there – from now to then.  While we are impatient and still want to do it faster we want our users to have a quality experience with the ecosystem they live in today.

MS: What has this journey been like for you?

SS: I knew nearly nothing about accessibility in March 2012 when I joined the Courseload team. It has been an amazing and humbling education. I am one of those who overestimated the possibilities today. 

Being a technology guy, I am always impatient with the pace of change, and I have had my share of experience with inertia, serving some slow moving industries like automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals. But they pale in comparison to what I have encountered in the educational content ecosystem. Accessibility is not a technology problem but rather one of coordination and to some extent motivation. 

I have been endlessly impressed by the support offered by the accessibility community, disabled student services pros, advocacy groups, standards groups, and thought leaders. This is the most remarkable part of the journey for me - the number of people wanting to see change happen and willing to help us make a difference.

MS: What have you learned from interactions with the National Federation of the Blind?

SS: It is a tough job to advocate for a disenfranchised community when the mainstream is slow to listen.  The NFB has battled for decades, sometimes resorting to strong measures when others were not working.  We have been preceded by a number of actors who have taken a “minimum acceptable compliance” approach and others who ended up doing even less.  The NFB understandably puts less credence in plans and promises, focusing instead on tangible results.  

Nonetheless, change, even rapid change like we are delivering, comes in iterations – especially today with technology shifting so rapidly. What I have learned in our recent dialog with the NFB is that we are at our most productive when we all focus on progress. This is a journey not an event and we need to work together to make improvements to the status quo.

Some believe that the services provided by DSS (disabled student services) orgs on campuses today serve to slow the movement toward a “born accessible” world. We agree to disagree on that. Courseload is committed to assisting the DSS orgs because we see their efforts to re-publish and personalize course materials as vital to the current educational needs of students with disabilities.

But we do agree on the goal of “born accessible” content delivered on an adaptive platform that optimizes the user experience based on user preferences. The NFB advocates for important advances like ePub3 and Access for All, and Courseload is committed to these.

MS: Where are we in the accessibility journey? How much farther do we have to go?

SS: We are just getting started. Call it the first step in a marathon. We are updating our current product, but all new product development will be born accessible. As we add new capabilities, we will design for an adaptive future while considering the current state of content, pedagogy and technology. As long as these change, we will not be “done”. 

While we will pass a lot of markers along the way, the reality is that the journey only ends when accessibility is no longer a term. As long as products and technologies are invented that rely predominately on one sense or very specific physical capabilities, we will need accommodations for those with limitations. 

MS: What has the progress looked like at Courseload?

SS: The cool thing about this is that you can’t really see it in our platform. Accessibility is not a “feature” but a way of engineering – it’s really behind the scenes. If we have done it right, each user has the experience they prefer without being aware that others have a different experience. 

Eventually, we will offer some personal preferences that will permit anyone to use any adaptation. Perhaps you are not deaf but would prefer to watch videos with captions. Or maybe you would prefer to have your assignment read to you, not because you are visually impaired but because your eyes are tired or you simply learn better that way.

MS: What has it been like working with Courseload’s Accessibility Advisory Board?

SS: Wow. What a valuable source of expertise and guidance for us. They are extremely active and provide us with great advice. We have fortunately attracted a group who has no problem debating important topics and challenging us to think bigger. We have a number of board members participating in everything from strategy discussions to testing of our platform.

MS: What were some key takeaways from the AAB conference in September? 


  • Make a difference and do it as fast as possible in small increments
  • Communicate openly with the world about what we are doing
  • Keep reaching out to the community for help
  • 80% of compliant solutions are unusable – strive for usability
  • Work with publishers to get “born accessible” content sooner
  • Help DSS orgs streamline their processes

MS: Why are solutions so often based on older technologies?

SS: Geoffrey Moore described the market adoption of new technologies in his book Crossing the Chasm. Early adopters of new tech are surrounded by a marketplace of older tech users. Until critical mass is achieved, the newer technology is considered risky and experimental. 

In the publishing industry, we are experiencing the laggard stages of publishing for print while the early adopters of semantic content like ePub are experimenting. As a platform for delivery of digital content, Courseload must support both the old technologies and engage in development on the emerging new technologies.
One more thought here – as new operating systems and devices emerge, we expect to see better accessibility “built in” to these foundations. Courseload will lead the way to leveraging these core capabilities for future generations of users.

MS: What do you hope to see in the education technology space regarding accessibility?

SS: I’ll go back to a simple answer – “Less”

Less work to make content usable for all because more of it is “born accessible.” Less time between the need and availability of content for students because support processes have been optimized. Less complexity for disabled users because more assistive technology is “built in.” Less difficulty in personalization of the learning experience because adaptive content, pedagogy, and technology is in use.

Less friction

Less risk

Less litigation

…all because we have collectively made the journey.

As an Orr Fellow working at Courseload, I have been fortunate to learn from two incredible networks of people- my Fellowship network, and my Courseload team. The fellowship has provided me access to some of Indianapolis’ entrepreneurial leaders via an Informatics class taught by Collina Ventures founder, Mark Hill. The class brings in successful entrepreneurs each week, and gives us the chance to ask pointed questions about their business decisions and ventures in the world of startups. 

A common thread through all of these speakers has been the emphasis on teamwork and creating teams that don’t just work- they excel. Don Brown, founder of Interactive Intelligence, spoke of the gratification that comes with being part of a team that is doing something to make a difference. Don Aquilano, founder of Allos Ventures, emphasized team integrity, holding one another accountable, and treating those who rely on you the way you want to be treated. Sounds elementary, but as he put it, “the rules of kindergarten still apply.”  

Throughout these classes, I’ve realized how lucky I am to be a part of a team in which I see all of these qualities put into action. I am surrounded by talent that doesn’t just impress- it inspires. It would be easy for me to be intimidated, but the true inclusivity of my Courseload family has inspired me to do good work- and then work harder. To never be satisfied, to always look one step ahead- if I wasn’t so inspired, I’d probably be exhausted. The intelligence of those around me is infectious, and their passion ignites a passion before untapped within myself. My mentors and my CEO do more than just tell me that Courseload has a mission to improve the world, redefine learning standards and lower educational costs; they show me with their dedication to these high standards, all while remaining positive and forward-thinking.  

This team I am a part of helps one another. When we’re having issues, we stop, calm down and reevaluate our position. Though the development team has referred to me as an “EMP” (electromagnetic pulse) for my tendency to “break” technology, I know that they will patiently re-explain a technological issue in a manner so that I can better understand problems. Our weekly team meetings are more than status updates- they are a chance to talk candidly about big topics. Every few months our CEO hosts a “Newbie Breakfast,” where newer employees are encouraged to come with questions about everything from investment to our accessibility commitment in a casual, yet educational approach. 

I know I am spoiled having this supportive environment at my first “real world” job. To hear business leaders explain ideal characteristics of a wonderful workplace and then realize those aren’t ideals but rather active practices where I work is gratifying. I’m fortunate to be able to surround myself with hard working individuals who inspire me to do my part. A remarkable team is a success in its own right. I’m so thankful that I can call myself a part of this Courseload team.

A year ago I felt completely overwhelmed as a senior at DePauw as to what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. All I knew was that I wanted to change the world. With lots of ambition and not much vision, I waltzed through multiple interviews and was lucky enough to land a spot at finalist day for the Orr Fellowship, an Indiana-based entrepreneurial program that places new graduates in high-growth, tech-oriented companies. Through the process, I crossed paths with Courseload, and so began my start-up life journey.

I won’t say that the transition to working life has always been a smooth and easy one. There is no break in the middle of the day for scheduled naps. Lunch typically involves microwaved leftovers I tried to cook myself, rather than hot steaming cafeteria food I never thought I would miss. Being focused for a full 8+ hours a day can also be tough to get used to. And yet, I could not have asked for a better place to spend the majority of my productive hours. Here are 5 reasons why I love working at Courseload:

1. A new lesson every day

The great thing about working at a start-up is that life is never boring. True, some days are less glamorous than others but there is never a shortage of things to get done. With limited resources, everyone must wear multiple hats - from product development to customer service, to professional fixer of scanners and printers. As we scale, new processes are constantly needed, new opportunities are available to pursue and new innovations must be considered. Working with ambiguity is a way of life. Every week I meet with one of our VPs to talk about upgrading an existing system or process, discovering a new market, or leading an effort to sign a new partner – significant responsibilities for someone who has only been on the job for three months.

2. Courseload has a vision to change education

Maybe I am an optimist, or perhaps a prototypical product of a liberal arts education, but I am stubbornly committed to the goal of changing the world to make it a better place. Here at Courseload I have found the perfect incubator for this mission. Every single Courseload employee is passionately committed to the cause of reducing education cost for students and transforming the way all students learn and collaborate. Since joining Courseload, I have been completely immersed in the cause to make learning material available to students with vision or print impairments. After reading countless articles on the topic and interviewing students and Disability Student Services organizations, I have developed genuine empathy for the frustrating roadblocks these students face. 

3. The people and talent in the room

From seasoned leaders of companies big and small to a recently-minted Harvard MBA, the Courseload family is steeped in talent. I am constantly learning new tips and techniques from my coworkers. Yet despite the varying levels of experience, there is no sense of politics or hierarchy that so often impedes the productivity of a company. Everyone is welcomed to contribute. I feel completely empowered to speak my mind even as a recent graduate and new hire.

4. Being a pioneer

Going to work is exciting because I know I am part of a movement. The transition to digital textbooks, though growing, is still nascent. Students today are more tech savvy but the user experience needs improvement before massive uptake occurs. Being at the brink of innovation typically means being an underdog. At the same time this very fact is what fuels me to work harder and to deliver what has never before been available. As a small company, it is easier for us to adapt to changes and respond to customer needs. I believe smart people and flexibility will allow Courseload to successfully remove, one-by-one, the current impediments to the digital text transition.

5. Craft beer

Life at Courseload is a roller coaster. Some days I feel fueled with vigor to improve higher education. Others, I feel weary from the ambiguity and mountain of work to be done. But through it all, there’s one thing I do know for certain: if it’s 6 pm and the work won’t stop coming, there’s always a perfectly chilled craft beer in the fridge waiting for me. Because even as we zealously maintain focus on our goals, Courseload also believes in appreciating life’s little pleasures and building the culture to make the ride worthwhile. 

Redefining Content

by Jennifer Callicoat on Sep 27, 2012

Bill Gates was the first to coin the phrase “content is king.”  That was back in 1996. 16 MB of RAM on your computer seemed quite ample then and gas was $1.22 a gallon. The world has changed in many ways since 1996, including means by which instructors can teach and students can best learn. This begs the question “what is the role of content in today’s higher ed classes?” 

At Courseload, we believe that course content has never been more important to student success. The textbook typically first comes to mind when thinking of course content. Studies have shown that students who read and study from the assigned material do better in class and have higher retention rates in college than students who do not read the assigned pages. Clearly, the textbook can offer important benefits. Not surprisingly, students are increasingly choosing eTexts as their preferred means for consuming textbook content for a number of reasons including convenience, reduced costs, and environmental benefits.

However, it is rare that instructors leverage just textbook content to teach students. Case studies, newspaper and journal articles, magazine and web stories, PowerPoint presentations, literature, and instructor-authored materials are just a few sources faculty are using with students. And, of course, using rich media content like videos, audio, online simulations and games, and online courseware and homework platforms provides meaningful context to the learning experience.

There’s another category of content that is quite essential in optimizing learning for students. And that is the content and exchanges that are generated instructor-to-student-to-instructor and student-to-student during the progression of the class. I’ll call this “dynamic content.” Market research shows students place extremely high value on the input and feedback provided by their instructors and fellow students. When you can merge the mix of educational materials with the direct input of these parties, it’s a recipe for increased engagement and better learning for students.  

That very mix is what the Courseload platform facilitates between and among instructors and students --- at the content-level across the textbooks, case studies, articles, presentations, etc. used in the course. One of Courseload’s goals is to support improved learning outcomes by making the content more relevant than ever before. Instructors using the Courseload platform can customize their teaching approach by adding their own annotations, study tags, highlights, and links to materials such as videos or articles alongside the traditional content. One instructor who is teaching a tried and true economics concept described in a textbook may choose to demonstrate the current day relevance of the concept by adding a link to an article from yesterday’s online newspaper edition. Another instructor teaching organic chemistry may add a link alongside a complicated organic chemistry homework problem to a brief video she filmed of herself that offers advice on how her students may consider approaching the problem.

Students also can personalize their study approach. They can create their own study guides using tags, notes, and annotations they place alongside the content for their course and choose to share with their study group, the entire class, or just for themselves. Students can highlight a paragraph or math equation they are struggling with and forward a question to the instructor that includes the highlighted text to provide additional context. The possibilities to create and share dynamic content go on and on…. leading to more relevant content, better studying, and more engaged students. 

So while content may remain king, it is clear that the way in which content is delivered and used can support better learning. The king may have to make room in the court.

As colleges and universities consider the transition to digital course materials, a strategic debate is emerging on campuses. On one side are those who support individual choice for students to acquire digital content from a preferred source.  Instructors who support choice are less interested in how content is acquired and used; they expect students to find their own way to master the material.  If that means borrowing a roommate’s copy, no foul. If that means finding some other way to learn outside of purchasing the assigned text, no problem. If that means attaining a pirated copy for free, well that is more an issue for publishers and authors, isn’t it? Besides, the argument goes, why not let students find the technology they like best? Who are we to decide what they use Let’s call supporters of this position the Individualists.

On the other side, some see strong advantages to a common approach in acquiring and deploying digital course materials. One major perceived advantage is cost - schools that guarantee that each student will purchase required materials can leverage lowest possible pricing from publishers who more than make up on volume what they give in lower prices. The other perceived advantages are pedagogical. There are many ways a common platform supports teaching and learning. Instead of using different sets of tools with digital content from multiple sources, students and faculty can use a consistent set of tools for things like highlighting, annotation, and collaboration. With class members on the same platform, students can share markups and facilitate study group interactions. Instructors can engage all students directly in the course materials, posing and answering questions, linking to related material, supplementing with video, etc. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate if students got their materials from disparate sources. Learning analytics can provide real time feedback for faculty to make teaching adjustments and trigger early warning signals to guide remediation. Let’s call these folks the Collectivists.

Based on Courseload’s conversations on scores of campuses, it appears that the Collectivists are in the majority. In their estimation, the cost and pedagogical advantages to collaboration and a common experience far outweigh preferences for individual choice. Looking into our crystal ball at Courseload, we’ve chosen to cast our lot with the Collectivists. 

We’ll see how the debate plays out.