An Interview with Annie Todd, Product Director, Cengage Learning.

Over the past few years, many institutions and states have embarked upon course redesign initiatives, particularly in Developmental Math and English courses. In the case of Developmental English, such efforts are typically accompanied by the integration of reading and writing courses into a single, combined course.

Annie Todd, who has been working in the Developmental English discipline for the past seven years, has been part of this course redesign evolution. Jeanne Heston recently caught up with her to learn more about the projects that she has helped to drive over the past several years.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was it that first inspired you and your team members to develop Aplia™ for Developmental English?

Annie Todd (AT): I had been working for a competitor in the Economics discipline and I had seen Aplia being used for Economics courses. I was impressed with the Aplia mission of enabling students to experience the concepts for themselves, to learn by doing. I felt that Developmental English students could also benefit from the use of Aplia for their coursework. We formed an advisory board to help us explore the possibilities, test various options with instructors, and determine the exact feature set. We were very careful to ensure a 50/50 mix, consisting of both digital advocates and techno-phobes, because we wanted to ensure that the final set of features would be appealing to both groups of instructors.

JH: What market needs or other factors led to the development of the Fusion line of products?

AT: A few years ago – when the reading and writing course were taught separately – it could take students up to two full years to complete remedial work, especially if they were required to take courses in both math and English. If they did not complete the coursework successfully, they were shut out of college level work altogether, locked into a segment of the population that found it difficult or impossible to qualify for high-paying jobs. Meanwhile, some interesting industry research was published, indicating that students who completed the remedial work faster were more likely to complete their degrees. The notion of integrating the reading and writing courses began to take hold in redesign projects across the country. The Fusion series was created to fit into this newly-formed, combined course, which enables students to move through the material more quickly and to see the connections between the two subject areas. Using Aplia, the student’s time in the lab could be focused on the student’s specific weaknesses; there would be no need to waste time on concepts that he had already mastered.

JH: How do Aplia and Fusion fit into the redesign process?

AT: The lab is important to the course. Class time is still pretty much lock-step with the book, but the lab allows students to work on areas that have been identified – through the Aplia diagnostics – as needing more attention. Aplia helps students overcome obstacles, see the parallels between reading and writing, and achieve better outcomes, while going faster. In fact, we have spent a lot of time and energy trying to make the content engaging and fun!

JH: How do you determine which features should be part of each version of Aplia for Developmental English?

AT: We rely heavily upon market and user feedback. We started with an advisory board, to test new ideas and to obtain reactions to various prototypes, combined with feedback from existing users and research related to market needs.

JH: Have there been any surprises along the way?

AT: We were initially surprised by the extent to which states and schools vary in terms of the average length of a term and the degree to which they want to customize the course content in order to meet the school’s or the state’s specific requirements. As a result, we now have several examples of eight-week customizations and other common modifications that we can show to customers, so that they can more easily see the extent to which the course content can be modified to fit their specific needs.

JH: How do you anticipate that these courses will evolve?

AT: We are already starting to see a content shift, with a higher percentage of the typical integrated reading and writing class devoted to reading, even though many professors are more comfortable with the writing components of the class. At the same time, we are seeing the influence of the Gates Foundation. Its focus on improved outcomes and persistence has inspired the development of – and continuous improvements to – online course materials.

Have you recently initiated or completed a course redesign project for your Developmental English courses?  Did you integrate the reading and writing courses as part of that initiative? Do you use online learning and assessment resources in conjunction with your Developmental English courses? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, we would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below, or by sending us a message at [email protected].