Aplia keeps students and professors on the same page

By Emma Vaughn
05/13/05

Reprinted from Stanford Daily
(Copyright 2005 Stanford Daily)

Graduate School of Business Prof. Paul Romer said he was first inspired to create an online teaching tool -- which developed into Aplia -- in the late 1990s when he realized that his teaching was being inhibited by the lack of preparation among students and the mass amounts of grading. His goal was to create a system that would keep up with students' progress and force them to complete the assignments, without further taxing the professor or teaching assistants.

Aplia (http://www.aplia.com) is an economics Web teaching tool developed to encourage more effort from students and minimize grading by professors. The goal is to help students get a better understanding of the material by assigning interactive online homework. Since the work is graded and distributed by the program, professors are able to delve further into the material and spend more time with students rather than grade problem sets and papers.

"One of our core missions is to help professors become better educators while also improving students' education experiences," said Aplia Marketing Manager Larry Gee. "We do this by providing high quality content in an easy to use course management system. Professors adopt the use of Aplia much like they adopt a particular textbook."

The program consists of a collection of Web-based tools focused on assigning frequent homework and creating interactive activities that can be incorporated into the classroom. Problem sets, news analyses, experiments, tutorials, reports of students' progress and new digital editions of the course textbooks are all available online.

Aplia offers interactive tools for a variety of courses, including introductory economics, macroeconomics and microeconomics. The Aplia program alone costs students $28 per course, while the integrated textbook and Aplia program combined can run from $115 to $130, depending on the textbook selected.

"Aplia gets students more actively engaged by actually 'doing' economics rather than watching someone else do it," Gee said. "They get to manipulate graphs, participate in experiments and apply economic principles to today's news articles."

In order to make sure that students complete all the online assignments, the work on Aplia is automatically tracked and graded -- and the grades count toward determining students' success in the course.

"When professors want to use this program, they make the homework a strong part of the class grade," explained Romer, who teaches a macroeconomics course at the Business School. "The students who want to take the class have to submit their work online."

By having homework as a course requirement, students would be forced into keeping up with the material rather than putting it all of to the last minute. This also helps the instructor who can teach to a class of students who are all on the same page.

"There were things in my teaching that I just couldn't do because I couldn't get the tools I wanted and students hadn't read," Romer said. "I would waste class time practically reading the book out loud. It was a terrible waste of time, but because they didn't know the basics, we couldn't really progress into the more interesting and conceptual issues."

Romer came to refer to this lack of preparation amongst students as a "death spiral."

"It became a death spiral because since some students didn't do the reading, I would spend more time explaining what was in it," Romer said. "This would then bore the students who did do the reading, and they would stop doing it and then it just accumulated. Having a lot of required homework helped us break out of that cycle."

Although the program was first developed at Stanford, it has now spread to more than 450 colleges around the nation and is currently being used by more than 50,000 students. This rapid development has been partly due to the $11.2 million of funding that the company secured from the Skandia Life Insurance Company in 2002.

"It's amazing to see the change over the past couple of years," Gee said. "When I first started [at Aplia], I was answering questions like, 'Aplia who?' These days the responses are more like 'Oh, I've heard about you from so-and-so. He uses Aplia and can't stop raving about it.' Overall, the reaction has been extremely positive. We have a high retention rate of users. Those who use us once stick with us."

However, regardless of his personal affiliation, Romer feels that the virtues of Aplia are more necessary at schools without Stanford's educational benefits. Ironically, no professor at Stanford is currently using the program.

"It is important to realize that a lot of the world is not like Stanford," Romer said. "We deal with professors [at other schools] who teach courses with a thousand students and don't have teaching assistants. In many of those classes professors have just stopped assigning homework."

According to Romer, there has been a positive reaction to Aplia from students around the country who have used the program. While they might grumble about the work load, in the end they are quick to acknowledge the virtues of such a program. Romer finds satisfaction in their complaints.

"Students do complain sometimes about the work," said Romer. "But I judge whether we're succeeding by how much they complain. Usually the best courses of their careers are the ones that they complain about and that are most challenging. Presenting a challenge to students is the best thing a professor can do."