Data-focused App Development for the iPad Best Practices: A Kaplan Case Study

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How can textbooks on the iPad revolutionize learning? Kaplan provides study guides and tutoring for standardized tests such as the SAT, LSAT, and GRE. Kaplan set out to digitize their study guides and found out that data on how your students read can revolutionize your product development. Maureen McMahon and Jeff Olson from Kaplan presented a case study in mobile content delivery and data-focused product development at O'Reilly's Tools of Change Publishing Conference in New York City.

Start With Studying Your Users

Before digitizing their first book, the first step Kaplan took was to study their existing customers. They knew they were the leading publisher in the space but had to study if their customers wanted digital books. They surveyed their students on which tablet they owned or were planning to purchase. They also started an ethnographic study of how students were using Kaplan's paper books. In talking to students about their studying habits and taking photos of how students highlighted the print, they discovered what students did with their books.

 Why Students Liked Paper Books

  • Need for tangibility & token of ownership: If it is physically in my life, I'm more likely to study.
  • Make markings/highlights to sustain attention: Some students highlighted almost the entire book.
  • Make markings as proof to self of completion: Even if they didn't read it throughly, they liked to mark the sections they had read through.
  • Keep markings as future study aid: Occasionally students would reference sections they've highlighted but much less often than Kaplan thought.
  • Make visual memory of content on page: Some students with a visual memory needed the colored highlight to remember materials ("that section was in blue").

"Everything You Can Do On Paper And More"

Kaplan decided that their goal was to take everything students could do with the print edition and surpass it on mobile devices. This included:

  • Multi-colored highlighting
  • Take Quizzes With Instant Feedback on Answers
  • Add Written Notes
  • Record Audio Notes
  • Sophisticated Search
  • Video of Professors Teaching Sections

Kaplan's First iPhone App Release

Kaplan outsourced book conversion and licensed a reader from Bluefire, which was compatible with Adobe software. They learned that their books were incredibly complex to convert and are bringing that process in house. They used technology from MarkLogic for distribution and data collection.

The reaction to the original iPod touch/iPhone App (released before the iPad came out) was not overwhelmingly positive. By asking their users for feedback, they learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of their assumptions. They decided to scale back their goals to the competitive advantage of eBooks – paper books are heavy. Their MCAT book set weighs 10.5 pounds whereas the iPad weighs only 1.3 pounds.

Study Your Users Even More

Kaplan moved to an agile development method. They gave away the digital book with the print edition so they could collect a lot of usage data and quickly iterate development. As of today, Kaplan is iPad only and hasn't gone back to the iPhone App format since their first release.

According to Kaplan's survey, 70% of the students had not used electronic textbooks in their high school and college coursework. Of the ones who had used digital textbooks, only 15% of early adopters had an excellent experience. More students have taken an online course (46%) than used electronic textbooks. When you ask students if they want analog or digital study aids, about half say they want some digital and some paper materials.

Data Drives Better Learning Outcomes

Traditional print books aren't able to "phone home" and tell you how their being used. Kaplan is now able to quantify and analyze how often students do the following actions:

  • Opening book
  • Going to table of contents
  • Navigating to a chapter
  • Annotations (highlights) made
  • Flipping pages to find something you're looking for
  • Turning the page/how fast pages are read
  • Which pages are referenced most
  • Going to the glossary to see the definition of a word

In the same way that other businesses have used data analysis to improve business outcomes, Kaplan is using their studying statistics to improve their content and change learning outcomes. They are able to ponder the learning implications of informative metrics for eBooks (click graphic for larger view of slide).

Informative Metrics from eBooks

Are we heading to a future where professors can actually tell that you do the reading? 

Will they be able to tell you did it quickly in the fifteen minutes before class? Kaplan plans to share student reading data with their instructors. Instructors will be able to see which sections their students are spending more time on and perhaps need additional converge in the classroom.

If you are in the business of developing products and you have this information, "it'll change your life." They had to reorganize into agile development teams to respond to the data. "There is no point in collecting this data" if you're not ready to implement changes around it.

Challenges for Digital Learning Development

  • Data vs. intuition: What are the things data won't tell us? What can't you measure?
  • Managing the fire hours of data: What are the metrics that really matter? Otherwise you will overwhelm your team with data that doesn't help them develop better products.
  • How will this change the reading experience?

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