2011 Campus Technology Innovators | Teaching and Learning
New York University Stern School of Business
NYU Stern worked closely with vendor partner XanEdu to create an iPad version of its course packs that would serve business students' unique annotation and collaboration needs.
Project: iPad App to Improve Access to and Use of Digital Course Materials
Project leads: Anand Padmanabhan, CIO; Maya Georgieva, assistant director of educational technology
Anand Padmanabhan is not just the chief information officer of New York University's Stern School of Business; he is also a student in its executive MBA program. So in early 2010, when XanEdu Publishing, the developer of course packs for Stern courses, gave a presentation at Stern's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning about its road map to develop an iPad version of its material, Padmanabhan was eager to hear it.
"I brought six incredibly heavy course packs to the meeting," he recalls. "They are the size of Ayn Rand novels." He wanted to know if XanEdu digital course packs could enhance the learning experience and reduce the amount of paper students carry around. Other NYU students were even more enthusiastic than Padmanabhan, and they pressed him to get involved in the app development. "It became a grassroots thing," he says. "I saw we had an opportunity to provide input, so what was rolled out eventually would provide greater value to students."
In the fall 2010 semester, Padmanabhan and project co-lead Maya Georgieva, assistant director of educational technology, began an extensive pilot of the XanEdu iPad app in more than 50 of Stern's MBA courses, and provided feedback to XanEdu through surveys, one-on-one interviews, and focus groups. According to Tyler Steben, XanEdu's vice president of custom publishing, student involvement was a critical part of the app development. Students were asked to rate and compare the features, functionality, and usability of the app. But what was most informative, Steben says, was being able to watch closely how students used the material on the iPad.
"They have pretty specialized needs, and the product needs to support their workflows," he notes. For instance, students don't read course materials in a linear fashion as they do a novel; they jump around from page to page. "Watching them helped us develop some special tools that aren't in a Kindle or other e-book reader," Steben says. One of these tools is called the "magic back button," which acts like the back button on a web browser to take students to a previous page elsewhere in the text.
Because MBA students frequently collaborate in teams, Steben says, XanEdu also had to develop better tools to facilitate teamwork: "Students make notes and annotations, which other team members can easily import into their copy of the material, turn on or off, and make a special color."
Part of XanEdu's challenge was deciding which student recommendations to incorporate and which to ignore. "If it is key to the experience and if we are hearing it over and over, we know we have to address it," Steben says. "The most important thing is to spend time watching students use the app and interview them one-on-one. After that, it is easy to make those decisions."
The XanEdu iPad App was approved by Apple and released in December. A survey of students after the pilot semester found that 98 percent wanted Stern to continue the program and expand the number of courses using the iPad.
NYU Stern has been a beta tester for educational products in the past, not always with positive results. "Some vendors think they know everything at the outset," Padmanabhan says. "It all depends on how good the vendor is at listening. XanEdu was willing to work with us as a partner. I sensed that they were flexible and open to recommendations. They said, 'Here's what we have. How can we make it better?' I would say they tried to incorporate 60 [percent] to 70 percent of the suggestions."
XanEdu and NYU Stern officials say they plan to collaborate on future technologies to enhance the teaching and learning experience.
And on most weekdays you can find Padmanabhan riding the subway home from work reading case studies on his iPad. "In the executive MBA program, we work in teams on cases," he says, "so the ability to share notes makes us so much more effective."
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.