Aplia – Cube Analysis

Aplia.com is an educational technology company that was founded by a Stanford professor of economics in 2000. Its basic aim is to provide a content management system that assigns and monitors homework in a variety of business subjects (accounting, economics, finance). The premise is that if students practice more frequently, they will master the course material more readily – obvious, but this system gives instructors the tools to measure and evaluate student practice.


Face 1: Market Focus

Aplia is focused on the higher education market, specifically on a handful of core introductory courses in business and economics.


Face 2: Types of Offerings

Aplia is a content management system that comes with pre-populated content specific to the course the instructor is teaching. It is therefore a hybrid between a content and an infrastructure provider.


Face 3: Who is the Buyer?

As is typical in higher education, the buyer is the course instructor. An instructor adopts a textbook and decides to purchase access to Aplia with it. Students therefore are required to buy an access code to the program, which is bundled with their text. There is the usual disconnect that you find in higher education – the person who makes the purchasing decision is not the ultimate consumer, either in terms of content or in terms of laying out the money. Aplia requires a higher degree of instructor-student interaction, however, than a typical textbook. Instructors monitor student participation and student results, and it is necessary for students to participate in these before going on to more difficult material that requires higher cognitive skills.


Face 4: Global markets

The core market is found in wired Anglophone countries, but it has the potential to expand beyond that to European countries with language skills.


Face 5: Development of the market

The market space this product plays in is the most highly developed: content is freely imported and exported, and local producers are striving to compete with large US-based companies.


Face 6: Learning Technology and other forms of Learning

Aplia is explicitly designed to fit within the already established system of university education. The problem that it tries to solve is how to maintain student engagement with course material, while not overwhelming the professor with grading. By automating some of the ‘lower-value’ grading and requiring participation, it forces students to be better prepared, ultimately allowing them to get more out of the course. Key to the Aplia experience is that the product cannot be sold as a ‘recommended’ portion of the course – it must be required. If you don’t buy into the basic philosophical premise (students must work hard to get good grades) they won’t sell you the technology.


1 Gillian Gunderson { 09.27.08 at 10:07 am }

I felt that the extremely directed nature of this went against my personal theory about learning, so I played with the demos a bit.

I can see the value in solving problems and getting immediate feedback in a course such as accounting.

I still don’t see why they won’t sell the technology if you don’t agree with the philosophical premise.

Why require everyone to spend the same amount of time on the same material – each student comes with a different level of background knowledge and won’t need the same time.

2 David Vogt { 09.27.08 at 1:36 pm }

Another interesting dimension of this venture is the “conflict of interest” for the instructor/entrepreneur mandating this for use in their own classrooms. For generations it has been “OK” for instructors to write a text book and then force their students to buy it. But I’ve witnessed the peer and institutional horror when an instructor creates digital media content and applications for use and sale into their classrooms. I’ve even experienced significant negativity toward my offering open source and entirely free software that I’ve developed for my classroom and campus, just because it was my “company” that created it.

Is there a difference between a textbook and software in this arena? I’d love some comments from the ethics-minded amongst you….

3 Deepika Sharma { 09.28.08 at 6:51 am }

Hi DavidV,

On the surface there is no difference!

However, the ethics issue is real for both. There is no harm in professors asking students to read their books or use their software if that is not the only reading or usage they are expected to do! Students should have the freedom to express a viewpoint contrary to that of the professor but ehics start to blur when a compulsory purchase is called for!

My two bits 🙂


4 cwickes { 09.28.08 at 8:52 am }

Hi David,
You state “For generations it has been “OK” for instructors to write a text book and then force their students to buy it.” Please forgive any ignorance I’m demonstrating here but is this actually true?? Here all along I’m thinking that there are some higher level (Ministry) assessments/planning committees/recommendations made before textbook purchasing options become available at all levels. Digital resources are so new (comparably speaking) and in the current education evolution towards e-Learning & dual mode learning seem to slip past the scrutiny because people are thinking that if it’s technology it can’t be wrong. An instructor’s Lone Ranger approach to creating digital content for classroom instruction appears more acceptable somehow even though, technically, all resources, digital or otherwise, need to be subject to assessment of instructional quality (among other things) before use.
🙂 Cori

5 Laura Macleod { 09.28.08 at 9:56 am }


Although I don’t know this program well, I don’t think the software requires the same amount of time from each student. Because of the nature of the homework, each student will take as much time as they need or don’t, as the case may be. The self-pacing aspect is actually one of the benefits that I see. I’ve got one child who can whip through a math sheet in 5 minutes and another who agonizes and takes 20. They’ve been assigned the same homework, though, under the Ontario ministry guidelines of 10 mintues per grade level. How long it takes them is subject to interest and ability. It is actually the concepts of ‘effort in’ and ‘practice’ that are being reinforced here.

David and everyone –

When David’s talking about the writing/buying ethics situation, I assume he’s talking about higher ed, where the situation is exactly as he describes. It is an interesting ethical question for instructors and institutions and I’d love to hear more discussion about this. I don’t deny that the ethics can be tricky. However, I’d invite everyone to consider the other side of the coin.

From my point of view, as the person responsible for commissioning textbooks, the big question is – why would I get someone to write a textbook for, say, intro biology who didn’t ever teach the course? Teaching the course is part of what makes you qualified to write the book! Would you want to part with $100+ for a book written by someone who didn’t understand the challenges of intro biology from both the instructors’ and students’ point of view?

The other part of what I look for in an author, of course, is that you feel strongly enough about the WAY you teach the course, that you can write something different from what currently exists on the market. If it is different enough to motivate you to write, then you’ll want to use your own book, which mirrors your own approach. Rumours to the contrary, there are actually very few textbooks that make their authors rich. They certainly pay better than research monographs, but on a per hour basis, the average prof would be better off cranking out research and getting her/himself ratcheted up a few pay grades.

So there’s the oppposite side of the coin! I wouldn’t hire an author who wouldn’t use their own work, print or electronic. Didn’t the Marx brothers have something to say along those lines, about not wanting to join a club that would have them as a member???!


6 Joe Dobson { 09.28.08 at 10:41 am }

David’s question is an interesting one. I’ve seen a number of colleagues – here and overseas – publish a text (or a “beta” version they hope to get published through a publishing co.) and have students buy it. I think Laura hits the nail on the head when she speaks of area of expertise – at the tertiary level I think that it makes sense for the most part both in print and digital media.

I’m not surprised UBC (and most likely any major U.) would be horrified about the use of software from your company. I’m not sure if there is a difference ethically. Profs at universities routinely combine their research w/ ventures – it’s very common in the sciences & engineering.

I wonder if some of the hostility you describe is due to a lack of understanding of the technology and/or fear of changes in enrollment (FTEs seem to be an endless topic at meetings), and perhaps even jealousy. I’d also be curious to know if you received the same reaction when it was determined to put this course on the web in an open medium.

There’s an interesting article in this month’s Chronicle of Higher Education that touches on some aspects of this.



7 James Richardson { 09.27.09 at 5:08 pm }

Hi Joe,

The link doesn’t appear to work for me. Jim

8 James Richardson { 09.27.09 at 5:19 pm }

On the topic of Aplia, I agree with Gillian that time on task doesn’t necessarily translate into learning. On the topic of profs proferring their professorial products, I feel it is the digital format that creates the threat. The majority of tenured or tenure track faculty fall in the digital immigrant camp and may view digital offerings with scepticism and mistrust. Combine this with Intellectual Property concerns and the waters are muddied further. IP issues are well know for print media but digital media is still in flux. I for one would take some comfort in buying my Profs text (provided I wasn’t being unreasonably ‘gouged’) As Laura aptly stated, the best texts ought to be written by content experts who are also expert teachers with familiarity of student issues with the topic.


You must log in to post a comment.