Product-related Decisions
Modular vs. Structured
How flexible of a course experience should I build?
As a courseware provider, you’re likely looking at the latest research in learning science in order to develop a coherent, practical learning journey for students. Simultaneously, you’re dealing with the reality that you can’t anticipate the diversity of student needs as directly as faculty on the ground can.

Courseware development cannot turn on a dime in response to dynamic trends in emerging teaching models, such as competency-based, mastery-based, and flipped models of teaching and learning. Each of these requires different approaches to navigating time, space, material and technology. Moreover, academic freedom remains a critical and unique attribute of higher education. Instructors will need to find their own ways of teaching with courseware to fit their expertise, instructional strategies and local contexts.

Choosing to build a product that is structured in content and form seems logical. A structured product guides faculty in delivering the course according to best practices as intended by courseware designers. A rigid design also ensures a closed loop of learning where students’ mastery of the content aligns with their progress in the learning journey through the feedback from formative assessments. Creating this closed loop of learning is often difficult for instructors to do on their own as it requires delicately integrating assessments and content in order to accurately shed light on a learner’s progress. However, environmental factors make it difficult for instructors to wholly embrace a product that restricts their ability to modify it for their learning goals, students and contexts.


What resources or professional development opportunities does your institution have in place to support instructors in course design and delivery for ultimate impact?

Creating a modular courseware experience, on the other hand, means developing flexibility in the product so as not to limit the instructor to one classroom context, instructional purpose or technology. Where structurally rigid courseware ensures the built-in learning science is delivered as you intended, modular courseware leaves these decisions mostly to the discretion of the instructor. Modular flexibility means less pedagogic control on the design side, but it also increases the opportunity for better market fit while teaching and learning practices remain in flux.

Consider the lens through which you view this tension as a choice. How can you create a teaching and learning environment that enables faculty to choose among a range of great options where they can’t go wrong? How can you enable more opportunities for instructor choice-making within modules and less so among modules? And how can you educate instructors about the set of choices in front of them in order to understand what the trade-offs are?

Chemistry Faculty at the University of Mississippi

“We really focused on modularity and what I call ‘personalized learning LEGO,’ the remix-ability of content so that faculty could create their own programs. Because the beauty of LEGO is all the bricks always fit together. You can make anything you want with LEGO, and in the same way you can create and remix anything you want with Cerego because the pieces always fit together.”

Andrew Smith Lewis, CEO of Cerego

When developing curriculum and a platform intended to be modular, make sure the product is:

  • Discoverable: Enable robust search features and filters with a robust metadata classification system for modular content discoverability.
  • Reconfigurable: Allow basic customization capabilities for faculty adaptation in different teaching modalities such as blended, flipped and face-to-face classrooms.
  • Updatable: When feedback indicates the need to edit source modules, make sure all versions that use the module are automatically updated as relevant in the field of discipline (e.g., fresh business use cases for a microeconomics course).

Best Practices
Modular vs. Structured

Create core components of the curriculum that overtly connect to the faculty’s syllabus. This might be something that you do in tandem with the instructors.

Enable extensions (e.g., plug-ins and add-ons) that extend curriculum and the platform’s basic functionalities; these can be contextually unique, i.e., specific to fully online or specific to project-based courseware.

Provide assessment banks and content libraries for instructors to draw upon. Consider plugging into available OER repositories.

Case Study
Mixed and Modular

Smart Sparrow started with a bold vision: to transform the way introductory science courses are taught in entry-level, high-enrollment courses. Students would engage with a single narrative through the course of the units. Some instructors, however, preferred to keep their own topic sequence rather than adopt the full course Smart Sparrow had structured. In earlier versions, the courseware built upon previous ideas and work, and used a lot of interactivity and adaptivity across lessons and units. This made it difficult to re-sequence or to use just a small selection of lessons, for example. In the later courseware products, as shown in the image to the right, Smart Sparrow modularized the content to make it easier to choose units of the course to teach.