Technology-enabled teaching & learning in higher education, pt.2a: A guide on how to build a unicorn in academic Resources

This is part 2a of our series on technology-enabled teaching and learning where we dig deep into the topic of teaching and learning Resources in higher education covering trends, challenges and opportunities to build new edtech unicorns.


If this is the first time you are encountering this edtech article series from Emerge Education, we highly recommend you later check out our first piece highlighting ‘Why we are investing in this space’ and our ‘Guide on how to build a unicorn’ that serves as an introduction to this piece.

The boom of education technology in the last decade has failed to make a serious dent in the actual progress of teaching and learning. This has especially been the case when it comes to educational Resources, the focus of this piece. After many failed efforts over the last decade at personalised adaptive learning courseware, engaging digital textbooks and attempts at disrupting the status quo, we are still in an environment dominated by textbook publishers with lackluster digital offers.

Why is this the case, what is changing and what can be done to foster innovation? This article provides the answers to these questions for founders and operators looking to understand and take advantage of opportunities in this space, as we analyse the digital teaching and learning category of Resources against:

  • (1) an overview of the current subcategories it consists of, referring to the old, conventional ways of thinking about teaching and learning and their market sizes
  • (2) the key recent trends and innovations in the market covering the macro trends with the ups and the downs, as well as specific incumbent company trends
  • (3) challenges in the space, explaining why these sectors have at times struggled to grow and what is preventing growth
  • (4) the next generation opportunities for innovation, highlighting the 4 new subcategories we believe represent the next wave of future in this space, directly aligned against the existing conventional subcategories

Overview & Definition:

The category of Resources represents the materials we use to enable teaching and learning. It is still dominated by publishers that have moved textbooks to digital formats and owned the courseware space through interactive textbook features, joined by the rise in online video-centred courses. As Covid presses universities and educators to do more with their online digital resources and offerings, we see opportunities to: facilitate cheaper access to textbooks, create immersive video resources, rethink courseware creation and offer digital course creation services.

Current Subcategories:

Textbooks: Old publishing behemoths, the likes of Pearson and Cengage, dominate this space and have through author and distribution networks built a resilient empire. Over the last decade, free Open Educational Resource companies have slowly emerged, including Lumen and Openstax, with 13% of US educators reporting using them in at least one course. While leading publishers are decreasing in influence, they still represent the biggest category in education ($140bn) and have in higher education ($10bn globally, $3.2bn in US alone) made the slow transition into digital, which now represents a majority of revenues mainly through e-books with relatively limited functionality.

Video courses: Online video-based courses have in universities to date mostly played a small role in remedial and supplemental education or in earning introductory course, transferable college credits led by companies like Straighterline. In parallel, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a $5bn industry, have as pre-made off-the-shelf courses primarily been successful as products for adults and positioned as additional revenue, brand and pipeline building for universities. With the recent Coursera for Campus introduction and Covid push this changed as universities, in absence of own offers, started to use MOOCs as core or supplemental student materials for their online offerings

Courseware: This often vague subcategory (‘courses’ + ‘software’) represents interactive digital textbooks that either serve as replacements or more often supplements to physical textbooks as either content or authoring and editing platforms, including assessment and analytics features. Most publishers today, through own innovation or mostly acquisitions, have some courseware offerings including ALEKS from McGrawHill and Smart Sparrow from Pearson, through which their basic e-books and pdfs are given additional functionalities.

Custom digital courses: This category represents service businesses that specialize in working with educators in scoping, designing and creating in-house digital curricula and courses leveraging mostly third-party technologies. The emergence of this category has primarily been through the large $7bn Online Programme Manager industry serving adult non-core students. With Covid the need for a digital offer has sparked the demand for support in creating online content and courses for existing core students, through fully managed end-to-end external support or specific targeted services. Through different product + service approaches, companies like Minerva and Learning Mate are playing a notable role in this growing space.

Trends & Innovations:

Textbook shift to digital and decrease in spend: The move of publishers online, the rise in second-hand and rentals and introduction of all-you-can eat textbook subscription plans (piloted by Cengage Unlimited), as well as pressures from the rise of alternative resource providers like Open Educational Resources and MOOCs has in geographies like the US led to recent drops in prices of textbooks as reliance and spend on textbooks decreases.

Improvement in textbook interactivity: The last decade has seen a rise in a range of courseware providers and product feature innovations that have supplemented some textbooks with more engaging, fit for 21st-century formats including videos, online homework and assignments. Instead of navigating through large textbooks educators can now easily recommend, customize, create and focus on the key required resource elements that are easier to keep up-to-date.

Rise of MOOCs as courseware: In their early days MOOCs attempted to be remedial university education solutions, as well as stepping stones for entry into university, much like Straighterline had been doing since 2010. While this never took off, usage of MOOCs during Covid as a foundation and supplement to core curricula with authoring and curation tools has been taken up by 3,700 universities. Other video-based entrants in this space gaining traction include Outlier which represents high-quality production video courses coupled with interactive courseware. This approach bridges the gap between video-asset centred MOOCs and digital textbooks, while supporting higher engagement and completion rates.

Rise in digital curricula quality: The rise in adoption of digital curriculum and content designing authoring tools and services is leading to a rise in the quality of curricula. Providers like Learning Mate use pedagogy informed principles to support universities in the difficult task of translating offline resources into online courses. In doing so they break learning down into small outcomes focus objects that support better impact, personalization of learning, as well as analytics to inform understanding of learning progress and efficacy.


Textbooks still the centerpiece of the course: While most professors acknowledge exorbitant fees, textbooks remain their go-to recommendations, due to a lack of time and incentives to create their own materials and go through often limited and hard to navigate OER libraries. Resource recommendations also remain highly decentralised, with 83% of educators making their own decisions on teaching materials. Although professors are increasingly promoting rentals, used and cheaper online textbooks, large proportions of students are avoiding textbooks altogether which has negative impacts on grades and outcomes. To combat these decreases in users, publishers have used courseware to create necessity and lock-ins. As professors now mandate online homework, students need to pay to access it often through expensive bundled digital offerings and codes that increase student spend and prevent usage of secondhand and alternative materials.

Lack of courseware breakthroughs: The last decade has brought failed courseware promises of publisher disruptions as the majority of the digital textbook market still persists through simplistic e-books. Companies that have built subject-specific content, assessments, homework tools have in most cases ended up as subscale supplemental offers and early acquisition victims against sticky core textbooks. Those that have pursued adaptive learning revolutions have scared away professors with black box solutions, have eventually had to increase reliance on conservative major publishers and failed to reach required scale for the technology to work and escape publisher control. As publishers one by one bought up and integrated the subscale businesses they diminished their scope and ambitions, as they resorted to protecting their distribution channels, improving margins and direct student links.

Poor off-the-shelf course completions: The MOOC proposition as an effective standalone or even supplemental course is still far away from reaching its potential, as educators try to understand how to integrate parts of them into the broader course. While the major players over the years have invested a lot in technology to improve student engagement, the completion rates still remain very low (<4%). Comparing MOOCs in their new use case with on-campus courses is of course different, however, the mass design course nature will likely continue to pose the same problems. This is likely why recent years marked a shift of MOOCs into the OPM space as a more hands-on and expensive service and product proposition with better student engagement.

Difficulties in creating and analysing courses: While courseware solutions and online courses have carried promises of autopilot courses with limited human involvement, any solution that threatens to replace the professor or reduce their curriculum creation autonomy is unlikely to thrive. Even though 80% of professors are happy with the accuracy of textbooks, everyone uses them in different ways with multiple supplemental resources to create the full curriculum. This process is difficult and time-consuming. The patched-up end product makes it difficult to run a smooth digital experience for students. The lack of meaningful and actionable learner analytics and insights results in most educators not knowing what is happening outside of the classroom in order to better support their students.

Next Gen Opportunities:

Improving textbook access: With Covid, digital libraries and textbooks are finally becoming a priority for universities, especially larger ones that recommend thousands of titles from various large publishers. With universities as direct buyers, opportunities lay in creating better distribution channels that are fit for the digital age. While incredibly difficult, those that can control the distribution of content, like Quizlet’s channel move with publisher flashcards and Chegg’s success with student direct book rentals, can play a big role in the future of this category.

BibliU is simplifying the outdated title by title textbook purchasing process and enabling universities and students to get better prices through economies of scale. It is standardising inconsistent digital textbook formats for easier LMS and course integrations and a smoother educator and student experience.

Immersive video content: Videos are increasingly gaining popularity as the central resource of the learning experience. However, you can put millions of interesting features around a video learning asset, but if the video itself isn’t engaging you cannot hack your way into high student engagement and retention. The recording of lecturers saying the same things they would say in half-empty lectures is not the future of video in education. The next generation of innovators in this space are pushing video as a medium to its next frontiers by making it more immersive, dynamic and pedagogically informed. Opportunites to scale video include areas of scarce resource (eg laboratories that are also big cost-drivers) and of high repeatable consumption (eg basic 101 introductory university courses).

While online is never going to replace a real-world lab experience it can significantly help students prepare for labs and increase practice time in convenient no-pressure environments at low costs. This in parallel can help free up and increase the availability of limited physical equipment for in-person usage when students are more prepared and effective. Touch Surgery has a library of educational surgical course simulations ‘that allow doctors to learn and rehearse for surgery anytime and anywhere’. Labster’s vast online library of science lab simulations allows professors to give preparation and revision lab assignments to students while monitoring comprehension.

Source: HolonIQ Higher Education Digital Capability. Initial Insights.

Holon IQ’s recent report highlights that 1 in 3 universities seek partnerships to help deliver digital capability, 1 in 2 prefer to outsource and the balance see them as a short-term solution. Companies rethinking digital teaching and learning resources will need to tailor towards these different audiences, acknowledging large but varying learning design and learner experience capability gaps and appetites. While some contexts and educators will lend themselves more towards off-the-shelf digital content solutions, others will be interested in and need high-touch specialist support, as seen across the two categories of opportunities below.

Courseware authoring tools: There is growing pressure and need for solutions that empower the professor to create digital materials and courses through existing resources, new resource recommendations, easy-to-use authoring tools, professional and community support and learner analytics. Only when the course becomes a streamlined and integrated unit created with pedagogical intent, will data analytics become meaningful, actionable and allow personalisation. Given mistakes and learnings from the past, solutions will need to reduce reliance on limited OERs and large single publishers, while enabling educators with easy access to, sharing and creation of transparent, transferable open-source digital learning assets and courses.

Courses like Habitable Worlds, build through Smart Sparrow, represent a gold standard of immersive resources but they are very time and skill-consuming to build, making them mostly only applicable to large universities with curriculum design departments. Tools like Genially, get around this problem by allowing educators to collaboratively create highly engaging presentations and infographics for students in seconds. In parallel, Top Hat has recently launched its Interactive Textbooks marketplace that allows educators to easily create their own textbooks by combining chapters, assessments, and simulations into one unified experience. No more need to buy 6 different products, when you can build and access exactly what you need in one place.

Custom digital course platforms: While some individual educators will patch up and create their own courseware assets, some larger institutions will want system-level change, meaningfully assembled courses and even full curricula that fit within various new blended learning environments. Many have been doing this already for non-core audiences through MOOCs and OPMs but the opportunity now is in tailoring towards core students, and even blurring the lines between on-campus and off-campus students. The business cases for universities lie in building leading blended learning brands that improve retention, attract more students and even provide content licencing opportunities with other universities.

When it comes to the technology to support this, LMSs are not fit for flexible authoring and content management purposes. Many current content management solutions on the market rely on outdated html as the standard and are not made for education purposes. When it comes to the course creation services, some universities either do this through in-house staff or rely on the very fragmented learning design support market, with the process in both cases being very long and manual. As more and more universities rethink their online strategies from scratch, companies that supplement a services approach with a core technology asset to create and power online courses will have a strong advantage.

Minerva Project, a teaching pedagogy leader, uses its online curriculum and technology platform called Forum and its programme design expertise to support universities in creating customised online and hybrid programmes focused on durable and broadly applicable skills. Learning Mate supports universities to migrate, manage and create top-tier modular and reusable learning experiences with robust data integrations and interoperability. Its technical infrastructure ‘allows for free, cost-effective, and efficient flow of content and data through the entire digital ecosystem’. Its large curriculum and course design and support services ensure universities are able to implement their online programme visions and objectives.

Stay Tuned

If you have come this far, thanks for reading.

Over the last six months, we have had the pleasure of speaking with more than 50 UK universities and 30 leading edtech startups to inform this work. We hope this guide will help existing and future founders better understand this promising and complex digital teaching and learning Resources landscape and better inform the direction of their businesses.

Next week we will be publishing our insights on the Delivery category, so stay tuned. If you don’t want to miss it, sign up here to our edtech founder newsletter.

If you are a learning leader or educator interested in following our work, we would love to speak with you. If you are an ambitious startup founder building exciting solutions in this space, we would love to hear from you. Just send us a note here.


Andy McGregor, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer and Jisc
Ben Nelson, founder and CEO at Minerva Project
Corey Snow, Director, Education Industry Solutions at
Curtiss Barnes, Senior Adviser at e-Literate
Damir Sabol, founder and CEO at Photomath
Dan Avida
, co-founder and CEO at engageli
Dave Sherwood, co-founder and CEO at BibliU
Daphne Koller, co-founder and Board member at engageli, former co-founder and co-CEO at Coursera
David Minahan, Chief Information Officer at TEDI-London
Dror Ben-Naim, founder and CEO at Smart Sparrow
Gideon Shimshon, Associate Principal Digital Learning and Director of QM Online at Queen Mary University of London
Grant Lindsay, Director of Product Management at Chegg
Ian Dunn, Provost at Coventry University
James Kenigsberg, founding CTO at 2u
Jamie Brooker, founder of Kahoot & founding Partners at We Are Human
Joab Rosenberg, founder and CEO at
Jonathan Baldwin, Managing Director Higher Education at Jisc
John Filmore, President, Chegg Skills at Chegg
Khaleeq Aziz & Abdullah Orkun Kaya, CEO & COO at Symanto Research
Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner at Rethink Education
Mauro Calise, founder and Director at Federica Weblearning
Michael Feldstein, Chief Accountability Officer at e-Literate
Michael Soselia, Director of Growth at BibliU
Mike Silagadze, founder & CEO at Top Hat
Morten Andersen, Strategy and Business Development at Labster
Nachiket Paratkar, Senior Vice President, Higher Education at Learning Mate
Nathan Thompson, Vice President, Corporate Strategy &Development at EAB
Dr Philippa Hardman, Vice President, Learning at Aula
Peter Reed, Managing Director at Interactive
Prasad Mohare, Senior Vice President at Learning Mate
Rob Cohen, former COO/CFO & current Senior Advisor at 2U
Robert Purdy, Regional Director of Scientific Partnerships at Labster
Tom Davy, Managing Director at Panopto
Valentina Reda, Research and Academic Development at Federica Weblearning



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Mario Barosevcic

Mario Barosevcic

Principal at Emerge Education. Investing in and writing about the future of education, skills and work.