Our Journey to the App Store

At ELTjam, we’re always interested to hear from people who are developing ELT products outside of the traditional publishing framework. For this post, we’re delighted to welcome Curt Ford to the blog to discuss his app American Voices. If you’ve been working on a product and would like to share your experiences, drop us a line at info@eltjam.com. Over to Curt …

Recently there has been a lively discussion about how writers might manage the challenges of publishing materials at a fair price while minimizing piracy. I wrote to Nick about how we’ve sought to address some of those issues in American Voices, our iOS app, and he kindly offered me the opportunity to write about our experiences. I hope this post will be helpful to writers who are considering whether and how to work with new media.

The Idea

The genesis of our project didn’t come in a single moment; rather, seemingly unconnected needs and opportunities came together like a jigsaw puzzle into which we are placing the last pieces.
Menu of first issue of American Voices
A while back I became interested in Irish Gaelic. With the help of Ó Siadhial’s “Learning Irish” and a week’s study near Galway, I clawed my way to intermediate proficiency – just enough to listen to Raidió na Gaeltachta, but also to be frustrated by what I couldn’t quite understand. If only I had a list of the words used in a few selected stories, some background information on the topics, and maybe some exercises… oh, and if some kind soul could just make me a new set every month or so…

The idea, of course, is not new. Books have been published using authentic or commissioned audio on CDs, and audiomagazines like Punto y Coma (and the sadly defunct Champs-Elysées) have had success selling subscriptions to advanced learners of Spanish and other languages. It’s not hard to find websites with a variety of audio materials for listening practice. But teachers often don’t have time to search for just the right piece, many of these files suffer from low technical quality, and the content is often less than compelling.

Content and Copyright

Another crucial piece of the puzzle, then, is what I call a new Golden Age of “radio” in North America. Programs like Radiolab, This American Life, StoryCorps, and podcasts like Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace or Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible are bringing new life to audio broadcasting with pieces that are sound-rich and narrative-driven. While not completely unscripted, they often have a conversational tone that’s much closer to natural speech than traditional news broadcasting. And listening to what native speakers discuss, argue about, or laugh about offers insights into the culture to spur discussions with our students.Listening to the piece with scrolling transcript

The issue of copyright inevitably rears its head in connection with authentic materials. PRX, an organization that links radio producers to stations in search of good programming, has been key for us here. They help us to get the appropriate permissions, and facilitate our compensating journalists for the pieces that we license.  PRX is understandably protective of the journalists they represent, but several phone conversations and a demo video convinced them of the validity of our project, and we have been fortunate to develop a good working relationship with them.


Another puzzle piece is the spread of mobile devices that make it possible to integrate a degree of interactivity, and to deliver material without shipping physical products. We chose Apple’s iOS platform (iPhones & iPads) for several reasons: a sizeable market, the option to deliver a free app with in-app purchases for additional content, and (to be honest) because that’s what we know best. Pay the developer’s fee, make your app, submit it to the store – sounds simple!

Except for the inevitable practical issues. For us these included:

• Technical complexity. Creating a custom app takes solid coding skills. I was able to bring Scott Means, a gifted programmer, on board, but if you haven’t partnered with a programmer, getting an app done can be very expensive.Choose the missing word activity in American Voices

• App Store guidelines. Developers should consider how their project will meet with the approval of the App Store. Our app was at first rejected because of differing interpretations of what constitutes a “periodical” (in their defense, Apple called us to explain their reasoning and kindly encouraged us to resubmit). This required rewriting some tricky code, delaying release of the app.

• Marketing. Getting into the crowded App Store makes you available all over the world, but it doesn’t mean people will find you. This is a mountain we’re still climbing.

• Social media. We need to learn more about how to integrate social media into an update. An ELT project will have an international orientation, which brings its own challenges: Youtube? We’ve got a demo up in English and Japanese, but people in China won’t see it. Facebook? Working on it, but what about Vkontakte? And social networks in China are a world unto themselves.

• Time. We’ve worked on the project part-time for well over a year. In classic start-up fashion, my tech partner and I spent many mornings in our “office” at Drip Coffee, with Scott developing the iOS code as I selected and managed content. A project like this will take longer than you think.

• Funding. There have also been substantial upfront licensing costs.

Moving Forward

American Voices has been in the iTunes App Store for about two weeks, and we still wrestle with a number of questions. Which type of content will be most popular? Choose the missing word activity in American VoicesShould we deliver 1/2 hour of material at a time, or one story at a time, at a lower price? There are terrific pieces out there that are an hour long, while others are less than 3 minutes; what is the best length for this format?

I believe there’s a place for a project that connects great radio with advanced learners in a way that is pedagogically sound, financially viable, and respects copyright; and I think that using in-app purchases on iOS gives us a good shot at meeting those goals. Even so, the number of unknowns makes me glad that I haven’t quit my day job as a language teacher.

Maybe someday I’ll even find someone to do a version for Irish.

4 thoughts on “Our Journey to the App Store”

  1. Fantastic, Curt! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m fascinated and inspired by sharp, entrepreneurial projects coming from the grassroots of ELT – they all re-fortify my conviction in the right of individuals to have their IP legally safeguarded. I also think it’s vitally important for you to be able to ‘sell’ this content, and not have to fall back on either advertising or secondary production to monetise your efforts.

    I’m sure you have thought about delivering to Android devices and/or providing a web app, which would open up broader access – what conclusions did you draw?

  2. Thanks, Brendan! We have thought of Android, but as a small group without angel investment to fund a full-time team, we wanted a solid app on one platform first. Fragmentation (in terms of screen size and OS version) on Android is also a concern. qz.com recently had a summary of these issues that reflects some of our thinking.

    A web app is also a very interesting idea, though we might want to rethink access policies: would it be better to offer sets of pieces, as we currently do on iOS, or individual pieces; or perhaps, when we have more stories up, offer access to all of them on a subscription basis like Yoyo Chinese, a site which (from my beginning learner’s perspective) is very well done. We’d certainly welcome any comments from the ELT community about this as well.


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