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Comparing the iTunes U iOS App to LMS Mobile Apps
September 26, 2012 - 9:00pm

Our students want to interact with their courses on mobile devices. The problem is that we have built our online platforms mostly around the browser. The LMS providers are all putting out mobile apps, but so far I have found that these apps offer a poor experience compared to the browser.  

Can you tell me why I'm wrong? Can you point out examples of killer mobile apps for Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, Moodle, Angel, LearningStudio or Sakai?   

Up until recently the gap between the browser and the app experience for learning management systems did not bother me so much. I figured that we are in the early days of the transition to mobile, and that very quickly the LMS apps will improve.  

Then I started playing with the iTunes U app, building courses in Apple's Course Manager portal.   

Very quickly I found that courses created for the iTunes U app looked and behaved beautifully. That the curricular content consumption experience on an iOS device from within an iTunes U app is dramatically superior the same experience with the LMS platform apps on the same iOS devices.

The iTunes U app does not do a great many things that an LMS app can. The iTunes U app does not integrate in anyway to the LMS. You need to build your LMS course, and then re-build it in Apple's Course Manager portal.  

The iTunes U app has no interactive features. No discussion boards. No blogs.  No announcements. No assessments. No Gradebook.    

The iTunes U app only works on iOS devices - iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches.   

A course built for the iTunes U app is a supplement to your LMS course. An iTunes U app course is a content dissemination and consumption pure play.   Nothing more.

I can't shake the idea that where mobile devices really shine is as devices for curricular content consumption. Should we really be thinking of smart phones and tablets as laptop replacements? If I'm going to create I want a keyboard. If I'm going to consume all I need is a screen.

The iTunes U app does a few things really beautifully that I have not seen in any LMS app. Accessing the course on an iPhone or iPad is incredibly easy. Once you download the course there is no need to logon. 

The content in the app works offline, as long as you have selected to download the content (text and media files) when you first view the materials. (I have not found a "download all" button in the iTunes U app - either I'm missing it or I hope it is on Apple's roadmap). The pdf's can be easily sent to a 3rd party app like GoodReader or iAnnotate for annotation and note-taking. The videos can be watched at 1.5x or 2x speed.   

Mostly the whole experience on the iTunes U app just feels smooth and polished. Content is easy to find, everything opens up quickly, and everything is logical and seamless.    

Yes, I hear what Ed Garay says about going down the iTunes U road.  He writes:  

"Free as in you must use Apple-only technology and you must forever commit to buy only Apple mobile smartphones and tablets, is really a terrible proposition.  Teaching & Learning cannot be placed on the road to vendor lock-in, not by Apple, Microsoft, Google, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Pearson or any other single corporation.  Also, these days, the trend is to open up education, essentially making digital educational content and resources ubiquitously available on all platforms and mobile devices, not just on iPhones and iPads, no matter how popular these may be."

But how do we reconcile the fact that Apple is providing a curricular content consumption experience that is so far ahead, at least from I can see, to what is available from the LMS vendors?   

Do we provide options for both, and let anyone with an iOS device enjoy the experience?  After all, Apple's Course Manager portal is free, and the app is free, so the cost is only time (and building the courses is pretty fast).

Or do we stay pure, and continue to provide a mobile curricular content experience that is only mediocre?  

My hope is that the people who work for on Canvas and Blackboard and Moodle and D2L and Sakai and Angel and Pearson are all playing with the iTunes U app, and figuring out ways to match the experience (and do so across platforms!).   

Apple has raised the bar for mobile curriculum content consumption (if not the mobile education).

How will the edtech market respond?


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