The Changing World of College Course Materials

The Changing World of College Course Materials

In 2019, it seemed that disruption in the higher education space accelerated. Among the headlines was the potential merger of two of the largest traditional publishers of course materials—Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education—as they seek to improve their chances of surviving the disruption and forging a viable path forward in the changing market.

Course materials providers stepped up new approaches to how they get those course materials to market, but it remains unclear whether students will embrace these new distribution models, particularly inclusive access, which student groups have descried as monopolistic, price controlling and removing choice from students.

Among the institutions themselves, there is an emerging focus on:

  • Getting students to complete their educations in a timely manner;
  • Reassessing program offerings;
  • Reassessing term lengths with increasing numbers of short-course offerings;
  • Expanding the types of credentials awarded.

Such trends mean students, instructors and institutions are looking for course materials that will help students successfully and affordably complete their programs.

While change has been the dynamic in the higher education course materials industry for at least a decade, change in course materials is accelerating. The greatest component of that change may be the rapid uptake of inclusive access in the past year, with a resulting greater-than-anticipated decrease in course materials revenue.

Another change is the continuing—if not rapid—interest in OER by students and institutions. OER adoptions vary among different types of institutions, departments, and instructional needs. The accompanying table—an abbreviated version of a table in the report—demonstrates some institutional approaches to the use of OER.

AI Rises

Wiley’s acquisition of Knewton in June 2019 is one acknowledgement of the inroads artificial intelligence is making in the re-creation of college course materials. Pearson in November 2019 launched Aida Calculus, an AI-powered tutoring app to help students overcome a hurdle in pursuing a STEM career. Also in 2019, McGraw-Hill began developing an artificially intelligent tool to embed in its Connect platform to guide students through the entire writing process and give higher education instructors a way to efficiently and effectively assign and grade writing.

The future of course materials may very well be not in the compilation of content, such as in a book—hardbound or digital—but in apps and tools that invoke AI to move a student through a learning process that reacts to a student’s mastery of a given topic.

College Course Materials Trends and Outlook 2020-2022 is now available and explores such trends that Simba expects to persist into the next several years. The report provides the outlook for the higher education publishing industry and sales segment projections through 2022. The report aligns with State of College Course Materials 2018—2019, which became available in September 2019 and focuses on two main areas: the current market landscape and the competitive environment for publishers and distributors of instructional resources for college programs.

Among the trends Simba explores in College Course Materials Trends and Outlook 2020-2022 are:

  • Continued role of affordability as a driver in uptake of course materials
  • Persistence of demand for some course materials in print
  • Growing acceptance among faculty of OER
  • Growth of short-term courses with credentials not degree credits
  • Growing role for AI amid growing focus on successful student completion
  • A 3.2% compound annual decline in sales of new course materials through 2022 with growth in digital, especially etextbooks, and continued double-digit decline in print.


OER Approach

California State University

CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions partnered with OER platform provider panOpen to expand the use of OER across the 23-campus system. The new platform is expected to support growth and increase options .

Northeastern Illinois University

With an OpenStax textbook being used in one section of an introductory psychology course, a librarian is helping design an experiment to compare student grades and satisfaction in that section and a section using a traditional text.

Washington State University

Communications instructor Christine Curtis for fall 2019 researched and procured OER for her Public Speaking in the Digital Age Course and developed supplemental material. In fall 2019, she began adapting OER for her Communication in Global Contexts course.

State University of New York at Fredonia

The number of OER courses increased 85% in 2019-2020 when 22 OER courses were added to the 26 that were offered in 2018-2019. In 2018-2019 40 instructors spanning 12 disciplines taught OER courses. About 36% of undergraduate students were enrolled in an OER course that year.