Students, Phones and Apps They Will Really Use

The chief product officer at Cengage Learning discusses an effective new learning app.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Jim Donohue CengageJim Donohue oversees the development, ideation and creation of all Cengage Learning products. He also is responsible for establishing and maintaining an open collaboration between product development and the company’s users to ensure that all of Cengage Learning’s products meet and exceed the expectations of customers. Prior to joining Cengage Learning, he served as Managing Director of the Global Clinical Reference group at Elsevier Health Sciences. Jim began working at Elsevier in 2006 as Managing Director for Science and Technology Books and then as the SVP and General Manager of MD Consult. Earlier in his career, he founded and served as Chief Executive Officer of NetDoctorUK, the U.K.’s leading internet

Technology helps improve students’ workflow, allows instructors to customize the course, and offers more visibility into individual progress. Applying these same principles to a mobile technology just raises the game even more.

health website and the fifth most recognized website in the U.K., and went on to serve as CEO of NetDoctor Europe. He has also served as VP of EMEA at Times Mirror International Publishers, President of Simon and Schuster European Professional Publishing Group and Vice President of Marketing Higher Ed at Harper Collins. He holds a B.A. Honors in Political Science and Rhetoric from the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in Rhetoric and Public Address from the University of Iowa. Jim is based out of the Cengage Learning San Francisco office. Their latest product, which he discusses in quite a bit of depth here, is the MindTap Mobile App.

What prompted you to develop this app? What issues, challenges and problems were you trying to solve?

Jim: The app was developed based on what students told us they wanted. Students today are never far from their phones. More than 90 percent of instructors tell us that students bring their smart phones to class. And half of students with smart phones say they use them to study. Based on this data, we know we need to design technology-based tools that are available where students ‘live.’

It’s no surprise that students who are more actively engaged with their course materials tend to be the ones who get the most out of class. According to our research, a majority of students (77 percent) say they’re more engaged when their courses use digital learning tools. Why? Because technology-enabled learning tools encourage more collaboration between students and their instructors and classmates. Technology helps improve students’ workflow, allows instructors to customize the course, and offers more visibility into individual progress. Applying these same principles to a mobile technology just raises the game even more. With our new app, students can engage in their learning while they’re on the go, living their lives. 

Why and how is technology and mobile redefining the constructs of traditional learning? 

Jim: Technology is opening up opportunities for a better learning experience by:

-Increased engagement in course materials (students can interact with material and be more hands on in controlling how they immerse themselves).

-Better use of time (students can study anytime, anywhere – making the most of pockets of time like commutes or treadmill time at the gym).

-Greater visibility into progress and standings.

What’s something interesting about its development history?

Jim: We developed it based on extensive student feedback – we surveyed more than 1,000 students! We really wanted to understand what features students want in a mobile app. As a result, it includes the features students value most – messaging and notifications, flashcards and practice quizzes. Moving forward, we’ll continue to solicit students’ feedback so we can make changes as students’ needs and wants evolve.

The education of millennials: there’s a generational shift driven by mobile device natives. Why is this shift not only important, but here to stay?

Jim: Today’s students have grown up with technology and mobile devices. They always have their device on them. Knowing that mobile access is such an important part of today’s students’ lives, we need to adapt to the students by finding more ways to make material accessible for them whenever and wherever they want it. 

How was it working in the classroom, talking with the students, collaborating with specialists? Any lessons learned? Was it a shock going from development theory to classroom practicality? Did you make some key adjustments at that time due to student or teacher feedback? 

Jim: Everyone learns differently; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why we constantly gather feedback from our student end-users and adapt accordingly. This allows us to create personalized education experiences that engage and prime them for success.

Often times, we go into focus groups and research with strong assumptions about what we’ll learn. And sometimes the greatest moments in the product development process are when we learn we were wrong – this gives us the opportunity to listen more closely to our student customers. For example, while today’s students are very digital-centric, I was surprised to learn that when it comes actually reading textbook material, they prefer a paper textbook to reading on their digital device (mobile or otherwise). Based on this insight, we shifted our early development priorities for the app to other demands that rated more strongly – such as practice quizzing features and Flashnotes.

On a “Digital First” theme: why does education need a digital foundation moving forward and how does Cengage prioritize tech when developing new products?

Jim: Digital is at the forefront of Cengage Learning’s transformation. Embracing technology in new ways is absolutely critical to the future of education. That’s why we’re focusing on students—talking to them and truly listening to what they say they want and need—as we develop truly innovative digital products that engage students and help them achieve their goals. 

What’s your 60-second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, and its benefits?

Jim: The app allows students to access many features of the platform directly from their smartphones anytime, anywhere. It’s not just student-centered – it’s life-centered. We’re taking our materials to where the student actually is, rather than where we’d like them to be.

The app will help on-the-go students stay organized, optimize small pockets of study time and interact directly with their instructor and classmates on a mobile platform. It’s designed for today’s students’ workflows, not the workflows from 10 years ago. We created the App using direct feedback from students, so we know the features align with what today’s students want, like course notifications and messaging, flashcards and practice quizzes. And, what makes it different from competitors is that it works with any MindTap course the student has – so students don’t have to manage multiple apps for multiple courses.

What else can you say about its value and benefit?

Jim: This app underscores our commitment to producing student-focused learning tools. We continue to develop and expand the platform and find new ways to collaborate, inspire

Technology provides the critical “paintbox” that can be used to design new learning experiences. This is an exciting time to be able to personalize learning so every student can be an active and successful learner.

and improve learning across social, mobile and digital platforms. Offerings like this furthers our end goals to improve grades, keep more students in school, broaden access to quality education, and better prepare students for success in the workplace.

Anything else in the works? Additional products, features or series/angles?

Jim: We continue to innovate and update the app and platform based on what we learn from students and professors. Expect to see updated versions in the future.

Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Jim: The education industry is at a crossroads. More and more people need a college degree or some amount of post-secondary education to enter today’s workforce, and everyone who works in education is looking at how to best serve more students. To this end, technology provides the critical “paintbox” that can be used to design new learning experiences. This is an exciting time to be able to personalize learning so every student can be an active and successful learner.

At our company, we are operating with a renewed and heightened focus on the needs of our student end users. Our app directly addressed a question we often hear from students, ‘What do I already know and what do I need to work on?’ The technology not only identifies areas of weakness, but it also recommends the content that will help generate the best student performance – resulting in a better user experience for students and ultimately producing better learning outcomes.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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