American Public University System: an adaptive and immersive technological transformation

American Public University System: an adaptive and immersive technological transformation

Dr. Karen Srba has served as vice president of academic & instructional technology at American Public University System (APUS) since 2013. During her tenure, she has been at the heart of the institution’s digital transformation in learning modalities. Business Chief sat down with her to find out how APUS is using interactive learning tools and an adaptive digital learning platform with AI capability, in conjunction with the deep expertise of its diverse faculty scholar-practitioners to offer a pioneering e-learning experience.

Founded in 1991 by retired United States Marine Corps officer James P. Etter as American Military University (AMU) to cater to the unique needs of military learners, APUS has since grown into one of the largest providers of online higher education worldwide.  The addition of American Public University to APUS in 2002 extended programs with the same academic quality, affordability and flexibility to civilian learners primarily in public service. APUS, a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Public Education, Inc, is headquartered in Charles Town, West Virginia.

Srba collaborates and engages with all departments of the university, including Student Affairs, IT, Finance, Financial Aid, Scheduling, Registrar and the deans of six schools to digitally transform APUS’s approach to instructional design and delivery. “I've been working on it for over four years,” she says. “I assumed leadership of Academic and Instructional Technology in August 2013 and that's when we started asking ourselves: what are the main important problems?” Srba worked to radically disrupt the ways in which APUS delivers its e-learning programs, first developing a strategy to leverage APUS’s deep data insights to fully understand and prioritize the initiative.

“We've taken a different approach over the past four years. We've been looking at technology that can aid online students in terms of retention and success,” explains Srba. “Students, especially as they're becoming younger and younger and taking online courses, require a digital experience.” Under her team’s direction, APUS has turned to interactive adaptive technology with machine learning to create a student centered experience that is both rigorous and engaging. “We have gone with an adaptive engine that allows us to scaffold the student and their education,” she says. APUS’s system applies machine learning to a student’s performance to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. As a result, it “is able to serve up that information to you just in time. Just at that moment that you need it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It gives [them] a chance to be successful and remember or learn a particular skill needed to complete the lesson”.

The scaffolding is personalized. To help accomplish its objectives, her development team partnered with adaptive e-learning platform designer Realizeit to design its framework. “The biggest thing is that, because we're such a large organization, we have a lot of different programs,” Srba says. “We have over 1,600 courses that we have to manage and to which we have to apply these different frameworks. RealizeIt came in as the adaptive engine, but they also help us scale our e-learning. They were actually able to ingest our Microsoft Word documents with our macros and our cascading style sheets for HTML5. They adjusted it so that we could make this a very simple process and our instructional designers could simply design, ingest it, and then our multimedia team could just go in there and tweak some of the HTML5 to get a final product.”

Srba notes that Realizeit’s ingestion engine accelerated the process of launching a course dramatically. “Normally it would take us about three months per course.  Since we started using Realizeit’s ingestion engine in the adaptive format, it now takes us probably six weeks at the most,” she says. Thanks to the collaboration between Srba’s team and Realizeit, “every student that goes through this system might have a different pathway.” She notes that “this way, the student is able to succeed no matter what.” The application of this personalized experience has seen student success increase dramatically. “The data shows that there's been a significant increase in the number of As, Bs and Cs, and significantly fewer Ds, Fs and people withdrawing from courses,” says Srba.

Reducing the number of student withdrawals is a key element of Srba’s mission at the institution. She acknowledges that a hurdle for some students is the absence of discipline inherent to a physical classroom. “In an online class there's no faculty member saying ‘Hey, you didn't turn in your homework.’ To overcome that, one of the things that we're doing is trying to make the courses more active and engaging.” Using Unity and HTML5, APUS has increased the interactivity of its classes with the creation of ‘experience-of-learning activities’ in a format similar to a digital magazine. Students can “click on a picture or photo or infographic and it might have hotspots on it,” Srba explains. “It might have things that I can see and read, and captions to explain the material.” The courses are organized with, on average, a 50/50 balance between traditional reading material and APUS’ new interactive media offerings. “You still might have course material that you have to read, but this interactive e-learning lesson digests a lot of that for you,” says Srba.

“According to the student feedback, this e-learning, which is more interactive, has actually increased their satisfaction,” she says. “It's definitely kept the students more engaged and we find that the more engaged the students are with these interactive pieces, the greater their chances of success.”

In addition to the increase in immersive and personalized adaptive offerings, Srba and APUS have been working to reshape the role of the faculty within its e-learning format, in order to further personalize the student experience and increase success and retention. Securing faculty adoption of the new platform was, Srba admits, one of the most challenging aspects of APUS’ digital transformation. She stresses: “If you don't have buy- in from the faculty member teaching that course, it can be a disaster.” Srba’s change management strategy centered around the most innovative members of her faculty. “We converted their courses first,” she explains. “We have a Center for Teaching and Learning, where we worked to help them understand how to use the adaptive software and the new formats and frameworks to their advantage.” Reflecting on the process, she notes that while “training was very big for the faculty, finding those champions was essential to change management process. Going for the more innovative, more open-minded faculty who were willing to make a change and saw the value of that scaffolding - they said ‘Wow, this makes my job easier, not harder.’”

Srba’s team has presided over a dramatic transformation of the ways in which APUS’s primarily adult learners experience online education. Looking to the future, she professes that their work is far from over. “APUS is already planning for 2020 and beyond,” she says. “The idea is to use the adaptive engine and take it one step further into a lifelong learning framework, which I just developed. This would allow a student not only that personalization within the course, but personalization for any course, degree or micro-credentials they want to take.” Students in the future will be able to combine complementary skills and courses within a customized program of study.  “There still aren't a lot of universities doing this,” Srba emphasizes. “APUS is truly one of the pioneers.”