Interview | John Boersma Says You Should Adapt Courseware


Who doesn’t want to realize the true potential of online education? Could there be a way to positively change how students engage with their courses, instructors and each other?

Together with a team of academics and developers, John Boersma, Founder and CEO of Adapt Courseware, put together a solution that effectively does just that, providing short, effective animated lectures, multimedia interactives, lecture notes, and social learning all in one place — all in stark contrast to the more commonly seen disjointed lectures and complex, confusing and often unfocused online courses out there today.

“What I saw in 2010 when I started this venture was that the folks who understood what online education could be — in academia and in the non-profits — didn’t have adequate budgets. And the folks with the budgets, primarily on the corporate and publishing sides — weren’t visualizing or implementing the change in approach that was needed.”

John’s idea? Bring together the best design concepts with the right funding. From an I Love Lucy soundstage to flipped learning and a 1984 Benjamin Bloom paper on mastery learning, John makes for an engaging interview with a lot to say about what really works for students.

John Boersma

It’s pretty straightforward, but tell me anyway, what’s in your company name?

The courseware “adapts” to each student in a number of ways, individualizing the learning experience. Our courseware selects which multimedia interactive to deliver next based on the student’s performance to date. Tutorial hints are delivered based on individual student responses. The mode of instruction, whether high quality instructional video, text, or interactives, is selectable by the student based on the learning strategies that individual develops over time.

Alright, in your own words, what exactly is it? Why is your solution the best?

Adapt Courseware is a complete curriculum resource for colleges and universities to deliver a more engaging online learning experience. We have developed sophisticated courseware that integrates easily into Learning Management Systems to deliver our complete content for general education courses. The courses are ready-to-go out of the box, with no course preparation required, but can be customized by the institution or professor as much as desired.

We’ve built it all – the platform and the content. I see lots of companies in educational technology doing pieces – providing a learning platform, or content, or tools. We decided to do it all so that we can provide a complete solution.

Let’s talk about what it does and its benefits.

We’ve designed our courseware with the goal of delivering the best available online learning experience. We did an in-depth study of learning theory with empirical evidence to support it, and adopted a set of five key design principles: a mastery learning methodology, effectively designed multimedia, optimal challenge, student choice, and social learning.

For colleges, these design principles lead to important benefits. The first is better and more measurable learning outcomes. Our studies so far suggest about a third better learning outcomes than with traditional methods. Plus, we measure and can report on hundreds of learning objectives per student per course.

We also think about how to move the needle on student course completion rates and retention. That’s where our motivational support elements come in. Most colleges attempt to provide a “wrapper” of retention efforts around the course – including monitoring and outreach to students. We think retention efforts should also focus on the course itself. Our optimal challenge design element reduces student frustration or boredom.

Real-time feedback, dynamic multimedia, and student choice support increased active learning time and student success. Each of those hundreds of learning objectives has a real-time gauge telling the student how they are progressing – we call them “mastery meters”.

We find that, pretty much, no one can resist the meter – if you put real-time feedback in front of a student, coupled with an attractive experience, student persistence should go way up.

Anyone else doing what you’re doing? Got anything to say about MOOCs?

We don’t see anyone doing quite what we do. I’m very interested to watch the “MOOC” movement, with efforts like Udacity, edX, and Coursera. We think they are paving the way for broader acceptance of the changes needed in higher education, but there are still some questions surrounding their models. We charge for what we do, just as there would be a charge for conventional curriculum or for a textbook.

You’ve got some interesting background regarding product development.

We began development in 2011. Early on, my plan was to hire folks to do all the things we needed to do. But we quickly realized that we could more efficiently develop scalable operations by bringing in tightly integrated partners. For example, we have a dedicated video production team in Los Angeles. Our instructional videos are shot on the same soundstage as the original “I Love Lucy” episodes. We could not possibly have gotten to where we are as quickly and reliably by doing things in-house. These kinds of partners will help us scale operations further. They have access to talent and networks of folks used to working together that would take us years to recreate if we did it all on the payroll.

Where can you get it now?

Sure, it’s available now! For this academic year, we have a number of community colleges and four-year institutions from coast to coast using it. I’m particularly interested in our work with California community colleges, where the need for new instructional technology is really acute, but the institutional, and even legal, barriers to change are also great. It’s challenging, but we are making good strides with a number of innovative folks in the system there. We are also starting to see some interest in the private sector college space as well.

Alright, we’re getting to some bottom line questions now. Briefly, how much does it cost and what are the options?

List price is about that of a conventional textbook. One benefit of our approach is that we replace the textbook. There is effectively an eBook in our system as one of the three modes of instruction.

For colleges and instructors, there are many options. First, the content can be customized. Instructors can add, move, or remove content as they please.

Our courseware can be used in a number of instructional settings as well. It’s great for fully online courses, of course. It is also well designed as curriculum for a classroom course. In this use, we expect that instructors will evolve toward what is sometimes referred to as a “flipped” model, where less classroom time is used lecturing, and more time is used collaborating with students one-on-one or in small groups working through exercises.

Who is your target market, who do you focus on?

We focus on the high-enrollment general education courses: Introduction to Psychology, Sociology, Accounting, Statistics, and so on – essentially, the “auditorium” courses. This way, we can make a large impact on institutional outcomes. This also means that colleges can free up instructional resources for designing better upper-division, seminar-type courses, where the colleges really differentiate themselves.

Let’s change pace here. On to some broader topics: How would you characterize the state of education these days? Please, share some thoughts.

There’s been a lot of change in the two years we’ve been at this. I talk to many, many college administrators, and I find widespread and increased interest on more measurable and better learning outcomes. It’s a real change from even a year ago, where this issue was a distant second to course completion rates. Now I’d say the two issues are treated as of comparable importance.

Another interesting trend is how the general media is picking up on innovation in education. Last week there was an article in the New York Times, which referenced Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 paper on mastery learning. That paper is a cornerstone of our design, but has hardly been generally known. I view the developing national conversation on how to use technology to finally really make a difference in education a very good thing – for the country, of course, but also for us.

Let’s talk more about you. How’d you arrive to this point and how’d all that help what you’re currently doing?

I’ve bounced back and forth between academics and business a number of times. I do have a doctorate in Physics, but also an M.B.A. and substantial management experience. The varied perspectives these experiences bring have been helpful in formulating and developing the opportunity in front of us. I’m a generalist by nature – so it’s a very good thing that we’ve been able to attract serious, seasoned professionals to our team in sales, operations, content development, video production, software engineering, and all the complex aspects of our business.

It’s also helpful in conversations with colleges to draw on my time in the front of the classroom. I know from personal experience that what we are doing can be used to help instructors use their skills and experience to the fullest.

How does Adapt Courseware address some of your concerns about education?

We know we can make a difference. That 1984 Benjamin Bloom paper describes how, when using the best teaching methods, prior performance on the part of students no longer determines future performance. We see that in our data – traditionally “weaker” students really can master the material when presented in the right way.

Many students using our courseware are “non-traditional”. We think of them coming home from a full day of work, and then it’s family time, which might go to eight or ten at night. Then – it’s time to work on that online course. Lots of online students really do classwork from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The option in the past has often been – please read this thirty-page economics chapter online. That’s brutal.

Instead, we offer three to five minute engaging instructional videos interleaved with multimedia instructional activities pitched to challenge each student at the right level. We provide real-time feedback so they immediately know how they are doing. It works far, far, better.


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