I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week, I report on a digital-courseware project aimed at reducing disparities.

A big bet on digital courseware to promote equity.

It’s too soon to predict the impact of a four-year, $65-million project to develop low-cost digital courseware with the lofty goal of reducing disparities by race, ethnicity, and income in about 20 gateway courses. But several aspects of this effort by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation already seem worth highlighting, as do the questions they raise.

First, some background. The gateway-course project aims to fix a huge problem. Nationwide, about three million students a year enroll in gen-ed courses with “perniciously” persistent completion gaps for students who are Black, Hispanic, and low-income, according to a Gates primer. That costs those students time and money or derails their education altogether.

The foundation hopes this project can reverse the trends by introducing interactive, adaptive courseware built upon proven teaching practices like learn-by-doing assignments. “Really high-quality courseware can be a tool for equity,” Alison Pendergast, the senior program officer at Gates overseeing the project, put it to me when we spoke this week.

Some 18 partners are in on the effort, including digital and open-source publishing companies (Lumen Learning, Macmillan Learning, OpenStax), universities (Arizona State and Carnegie Mellon), and a host of research organizations (too plentiful to list here, but you can see them all at this link). The first two courses in the pipeline are introductory statistics and introductory chemistry. And the plan is for a range of research and faculty-development projects to expand the availability and awareness of high-quality courseware throughout higher ed (hence all the research partners).

At this early stage, three aspects of the project stand out to me.

It has an explicit focus on equity. Maybe I was more attuned to that because of the report “Teaching and Learning With Open Educational Resources (OER),” published last month by Achieving the Dream and SRI Education, which evaluated how eight community colleges used open educational resources to advance an approach to teaching known as open pedagogy. Per that report, the model uses “student-centered, equity-focused instructional practices that elevate students’ knowledge and cultures and give students greater agency over their learning.” (Yeah, it’s a mouthful, but you get the idea.)

The gateway-course project doesn’t technically fit the definition of OER. Once developed, the courseware won’t be in the public domain, nor necessarily freely available to be reused, remixed, revised, retained, or redistributed. But the courseware will be affordable — costing no more than $50 per student, Pendergast said — and the project “absolutely” has been conceived, she added, to reflect the value proposition of OER, as advocates are looking to redefine it. You could think of this as the next stage of that movement, where the goals are to make open-source textbooks and other course materials not only more affordable and accessible, but also more inclusive and relevant to today’s student population.

It could set a standard for students’ technology needs — and how much digital access colleges might be expected to provide. The courses won’t incorporate technologies at “the bleeding edge of innovation,” Pendergast said, but they will require students to have some level of computing capacity and internet access. So if the model catches on (that’s a big if — see below), by inference the foundation and its partners will be setting a minimum bar for technology.

“We’re definitely trying to codify quality, and that includes broadband,” Pendergast told me. By early 2023, even before the first courses roll out, the foundation hopes to release research “that helps institutions understand what is the minimum computing power and broadband power that students should have to use quality digital courses,” she said. As the pandemic pivot online revealed, the digital divide is all too real on many campuses, so a generally accepted understanding of adequate access could be a useful addition to the field.

It is emphasizing faculty adoption, along with research on effectiveness. A learning curve can discourage even professors inclined to try new things from using digital courseware and other technologies. As a publishing veteran, first at Pearson and later at the CMU adaptive-learning spinoff company Acrobatiq, Pendergast knows that. And that’s why several of the project’s grantees are organizations that offer training to faculty members. “It’s not just about the technology,” she said. Supporting faculty members is a big piece of the project.

The foundation also appears to be responding to the rap that it sometimes tries to impose its own solutions on the field without fully understanding the challenges. “Our current initiative aims to be more intentional in prioritizing meeting the needs of diverse students and instructors (including adjuncts),” says the Gates primer. The project will also comprise real-time research on student and faculty experiences with the courses.

As promising as all of this sounds, I have some doubts about how these courses will make it from the drawing board to the masses.

For one, professors with the authority to do so still tend to prefer choosing their own textbooks and courseware. And as a group, faculty members continue to show reluctance in adopting digital materials. Case in point: a recent survey by the National Association of College Stores, which found that after professors’ adoption of electronic materials shot up during the pandemic — from 53 percent in 2019 to 62 percent in 2020 — it fell back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, once remote instruction was past its peak. That same survey also showed that while awareness of OER is now widespread among professors, use of the materials hasn’t increased much.

I hesitate to put too much stock in a small survey (of about 1,600 respondents from 19 institutions). But neither of those findings suggests smooth sailing for the new courseware project. Also, I hardly expect other publishers to sit back and watch a foundation-backed effort cut into their market.

The project aims to start with about 200 institutions that hear about the courses through grantees and other networks. “Our goal is to scale this broadly and widely,” Pendergast said. She hopes tools that help professors see at what point students start to struggle will win them over. “These courses have to function as pumps, not filters,” she said.

Ultimately, though, how this shakes out will depend largely on the quality of the courseware. The easier the courses are to use and the more affordable they are, Pendergast said, “the more uptake we’ll see.”

Quote of the week.

“This focus on debt excuses the colleges for this dramatic increase in tuition. I sometimes think our party spends a little too much time talking about the debt and not enough time talking about the cost of the degree, because that’s where the problem is.” —Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, affirming his support for limited cancellation of student debt in a wide-ranging interview on Fox News Sunday (comments related to student debt begin at the 10:30 mark).

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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