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Strategic Directions | Feature

Moving Course Apps from Traditional to Media-Rich, Interactive Designs

A Q&A with Phil Ice and Melissa Layne

At the American Public University System, the success of a project to update the Internet Learning Journal — a peer-reviewed scholarly journal focused on research and advancements in online learning — with rich media and interactive elements has inspired a new initiative: APUS is building out state-of-the-art course applications to accompany the traditional LMS-based courses that serve more than 100,000 APUS students.

CT asked Phil Ice, VP of Research and Development and Melissa Layne, Director of Research Methodology and Executive Editor of ILJ about the initiative.

Mary Grush: What was your experience at APUS with updating a traditional scholarly publication with features more typical of popular media?

Melissa Layne: Just because a journal is intended for academia shouldn't mean that it has to be boring. While research and publication in peer-reviewed publications is one of the most important components of promotion and tenure at all research intensive universities, the format and culture of these journals has changed little since the days of print-centric distribution. A quick survey of existing journals shows that most are published as rudimentary PDFs with few graphics or other multimedia components. In fact, many journals still make the inclusion of elements other than text a somewhat laborious process.

But popular publications such as Wired, National Geographic, Martha Stewart Living, Vanity Fair, and numerous others incorporate many interactive elements in their digital publications to engage users and provide significant aesthetic enhancement. While publications such as these certainly do not meet scholarly criteria, at their heart they do what all forms of writing should do: They tell a story. So, we began to explore how we could borrow concepts related to interactivity and engagement from commercial publications and apply them to a peer-reviewed publication.

Working with APUS colleagues Phil Ice, VP of Research and Development, and Holly Henry, Director of Research Technologies, I began to develop prototypes for media inclusion in digital publications. It was apparent that features such as video segments, inline definitions for terms, and image manipulation would be key to creating a dynamic product.

Grush: What tools did you use? Did you do all the work in house?

Layne: Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) provided a set of tools that would allow publication of exceedingly rich materials across a variety of devices — without the need to possess advanced coding knowledge. We approached authors who were willing to spend a little extra time to envision additional media to accompany their articles. Then working with APUS personnel and external contractors, we developed the first interactive issue of ILJ in the winter of 2014/2015.

Grush: What has been the reaction of your readers to this? Is the new format accessible on all platforms?

Layne: We knew that some of the concepts we were working with were new and wondered how they would be received by the academic community. To date, the overwhelmingly positive response we have had to things like data visualization and rich media have confirmed our hopes that we would be creating something truly unique.

Despite our first issue only being available on the iPad, we were extremely happy with the initial reception of ILJ. We saw downloads from every continent and we received numerous inquiries on how authors could contribute to subsequent editions. The second issue of ILJ in the new format is currently in the final stages of design and will be published soon, with versions available for the iPad, iPhone, Android tablets, Android phones, or a desktop browser.

Grush: Where can I see this?

Layne: You and your readers are welcome to peruse the journal's interactive table of contents, read the letter from the editor with embedded video, and try out the use of inline term definitions, interactive data visualization, and other elements throughout the journal. For iPad users a the full application can be downloaded at for free.

Grush: Then how did this model inspire APUS to begin a project to offer similar elements in its online courses? And would you characterize this as an example of a broader direction in general within higher education to include more rich media and interactive elements in online courses?

Phil Ice: Once we saw how successful we were with using DPS for publishing ILJ, we began to think about the other stories we tell in academia. Immediately it became apparent that this would be an ideal medium for creating rich, interactive course applications — that we could offer a true enhancement to the students' experiences.

I think we're seeing a very exciting time right now in higher education. For many years, we've looked to the promise of technology, and we've heard people talking about what kinds of new affordances we need. But as an industry we've been awkward at approaching change, and we've quite frankly stumbled a lot trying to get where we need to be.

Just look at efforts to go mobile in higher education, if you want to see examples of the fits and starts of trying to realize technology change. We've seen a lot of less-than-desirable implementations in our industry. We've had learning environments come across on mobile at many institutions, where they added nothing more to the browser-based version of what the student sees on their desktop. As an industry in general, we really haven't thought deeply about the experience the students are engaged in, and where we can use new technology implementations to make some really substantial changes in what we can present to students.

When I think about what we could be offering students, I like to think about our commercial experiences. Think about things that we use in our everyday lives, like ubiquitous banking applications: We go on our phone, or our tablet, or our laptop, and we can perform certain fundamental functions on any of these devices and expect and rely on a good user experience. What we interact with is highly consumable information and a very intuitive and useable interface. There is a consistent, reliable experience that is appropriate for the device. Look also at news services, or at — and compare those to what we present our students with in higher education.

We've confronted all this at APUS. And when we looked at what we created in a relatively short time with the new format of ILJ, we asked "Why can't we re-envision our online courses, and include rich media and interactive elements? Why not do all this with our course apps?"

We are now beginning to produce course apps with the same kinds of design elements, and the same workflows that allowed us to update ILJ so dramatically.

We are also figuring out how all this becomes interoperable — in other words, how we can bring in these services from our LMS, and how we can overlay all this with very robust analytics.

I'm excited about where APUS stands as an institution right now, and where higher education is as an industry: We are at a point where the tools have finally matured such that APUS can provide the first meaningful, game-changing experience for online students, by incorporating rich media and interactive elements in our online course apps. We haven't seen this kind of potential for change in more than a decade in higher education. I think many other institutions will follow us down this road. It's going to be an incredible sea change for universities.

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