In my last post, I wrote about how hard it is to achieve good product-market fit in EdTech in general and with digital curricular materials in particular. In this post, I’m going to explore how the market for curricular materials is changing in ways that will likely change the kinds of solutions that will sell and the ways in which they will be sold.
Change is coming
One question that people outside of education repeatedly ask is why textbook publishing hasn’t been radically changed by digitization in ways that just about every other kind of content production and syndication has. The simplest answer is the switching cost for instructors. Changing from one textbook to another is a non-trivial effort. Instructors have to rethink readings, rejigger assignments, find the new holes—because every curricular materials solution has gaps that instructors need to fill with something different or better—and so on. It’s a lot of work. Most instructors have already done that work once, over a period of years, as they have gotten used to a particular textbook and learned to work around its flaws. Eventually, they reach a point where they feel that the solution they have cobbled together is good enough. Once they reach this point, instructors tend to stay put rather than go through all of that work again. They usually don’t go through the effort of a major course redesign effort—which switching out curricular materials generally entails—unless some major extrinsic event forces a redesign.
We are in the midst of the mother of all extrinsic events. Every course that wasn’t already online is being redesigned and then re-redesigned as campuses change their minds about whether they will be online, face-to-face, hybrid, or some combination thereof. If instructors have to radically redesign their courses anyway, that is generally a moment when they are more open to considering new curricular materials. Maybe not during a last-minute, whipsaw change that instructors are just trying to survive right now, but the academics who make it through the current cycle and finally catch their breath will want to think about how to do it better next time.
Make no mistake; this change will not be over in a term or a year. Even after the health crisis is over, the teaching landscape will look very different for many instructors in many institutions.
The Great Online Migration
I can think of at least three major reasons why a substantial portion of the current shift to online will become permanent. First, the brand value of the residential college experience is being badly damaged right now. According to US News and World Report, the average cost for a year of private residential college in 2019 in the US was $41,426. “Average” means that some are higher. As we hear more stories about COVID-spreading back-to-school parties, followed by campus shut-downs week into the semester, followed by a hasty shift to online classes taught at institutions that had prided themselves on their residential experience and therefore had in no way prepared their instructors, staff, or infrastructure for a dramatic online shift, students and parents alike are beginning to question whether paying $160,000 or more for a four-year residential education is really worth the cash (or debt).
Even now, student deferral rates are going through the roof as students put off college and potentially reconsider their options. While I have yet to see reliable data, the numbers I have hearing anecdotally are 20% deferrals and no-shows or higher, with the bigger losses skewing toward the higher-end, costlier, residential-oriented institutions.
This brings us to the second big driver of a permanent move to online. As the health crisis abates and the economic crisis grows and lingers, some of those students won’t be going back to school full-time at all. They will need to get jobs. Predicting this sort of a trend is always a dangerous game. It’s possible, for example, that a lack of jobs will drive an increase in enrollments in the 2021-2022 school year. But if so, these may not be full-time enrollments and are not likely to be at the high-end residential colleges and universities. Regardless of overall enrollment trends, there is likely to be less demand for high-end residential education and more demand for affordable online education.
Third, COVID-19 will accelerate the need of colleges and universities to find ways of continuing to serve their graduates for 20 or 40 years rather than for two or four. Quite simply, they will need revenue at a time when the pace and breadth of reskilling needs in the workplace is accelerating. These students will need online or blended educational experience, which will mean that more instructors will be called upon to teach using new modalities.
By the time we reach a new point of punctuated equilibrium, it seems highly likely that most colleges and universities will have more online offerings and many instructors will be teaching more in new modalities. While I’m not predicting the extinction of the residential liberal arts college, I think it highly likely that many of these colleges will not be able to afford to resist change. They will have to expand their revenues via online and blended programs while reducing the costs of their physical plants (or finding creative ways of paying for them, like renting them out).
There will be no turning back.
Major changes in the market
This shift online will drastically shift approaches to curricular materials at both the individual instructor and the institutional levels.
We know from experience that instructors who shift online very often shift their pedagogy because many of the tricks that they learned for teaching face-to-face either have to be translated in order to work in the digital environment or flat-out fail. Instructors often feel like they are flying blind as they lose methods of getting student feedback that they are used to having in the classroom. Meanwhile, many experience higher student drop rates. Suddenly, the digital affordances, feedback they supply, and novel teaching methods that they enable become much more valuable. And since the instructors are already experiencing the upheaval and stress of having to redesign their courses anyway, adopting a new “book” in order to get new capabilities that will help them with their new teaching challenges has a much better cost/benefit ratio.
Meanwhile, institutions will face two pedagogy-related challenges. First, they will have to work very hard to retain students who are under increased financial stress and may struggle in an online environment more than they would in a residential program. Since the colleges will also be under financial stress, they will need to retain every student possible. They will no longer have the luxury of simply letting faculty teach however they like and accepting that some of them are not good at helping their students to succeed.
Second, colleges will no longer be able to differentiate themselves and justify massive price tags based on climbing walls and dining halls. Nor will the quality and value of the educational experience be automatically carried by their brand. Online, it’s not clear that an Amherst University education is so much better—or more prestigious—than a University of Massachusetts at Amherst education that it justifies the difference in price tag. High-priced universities will increasingly need to differentiate themselves on the demonstrable quality and distinctiveness of their online educational experience. And they will need to do so quickly, while starting well behind their less august peers at building a complex institutional skill set.
There will be many far-reaching implications of this shift, some of which we will explore in future blog posts. For now, I want to focus on the key-in-the-lock aspect of product-market fit for digital curricular materials.
There will be pressure on both the faculty and university sides to reduce the variability in how these products are used. Faculty who are fiercely protective of their right to teach as they see fit in a traditional classroom will often eagerly grasp a life preserver when they are thrown into the deep end of the online education pool. A kind way of describing the reason is that they feel less pressure of expectation that they should already somehow know how to teach well in the new environment (even though it is almost equally unfair to expect professors how have had no formal instruction in pedagogy to know how to teach well in a traditional classroom either). They tend to be much more open to partnering on course design, whether with curricular materials providers or with university instructional designers. There is a mounting body of evidence on effective teaching using the affordances of well-designed digital curricular materials, but that evidence usually assumes something about the “implementation model,” i.e., the teaching practices employed by the instructor. Moving online opens up new possibilities for dialog with faculty about evidence-based pedagogy.
At the same time, universities will feel more pressure to demonstrate the quality of their education in an online format. They will have to develop a new story to tell about what a “University of [Brand Name] experience” is like. That means administrators will need to become more actively involved in conversations about teaching practices. For reasons that I described in the previous paragraph, I expect that fights with faculty over academic freedom—which was originally intended to protect controversial academic positions rather than ineffective teaching practices—will become more muted in many places as faculty and institutional needs become more aligned around creating effective and transformative educational experiences in the new context that the academics will find themselves in.
The degree to which educators and universities continue to feel that it is in their interest to do so using commodity products sold by major publishers is a more complex question. But it is also a different question for a different post.