Digital Learning, Browsers, and Apps

The surprising resilience of a 27 year old technology.

March 22, 2017

Next July will mark the 10th anniversary of the iOS App Store.  Since the Apple App Store went live, more than 140 billion apps have been downloaded. There are over 2 million apps in the Apple App Store. Finding out how many Android Apps exist and have been downloaded is more difficult (maybe you can help), but let’s just say lots.

In 2017, there are an estimated 223 million smartphones in the US. For those who can’t afford or don’t want a smartphone, there is a wide choice of tablets.  Apple has sold 338 million iPads worldwide since the 2010 launch. These sales have been declining in recent years relative the high-point in sales in 2013, but Apple still sells lots of iPads (9.27 million in the last quarter of 2016).If an iPad is too expensive, an Android based Amazon Fire tablet starts at $49.00.  You can probably find an Android tablet for less money.

With all of these apps, and all of these smartphones and tablets to run these apps on, why is it that it is the browser and not the app that still dominates digital learning?

It was 27 years ago that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the browser.  Mosaic came out in 1993.  Netscape Navigator in 1994. Internet Explorer in 1995.  It is safe to say that by 2017 that the browser is a mature technology.  

Many of us working in edtech thought that the app would supplant the browser for digital learning.  The app seemed to have so much going for it.  First, we thought that digital learning would follow social media - migrating from the computer (and the browser) to the mobile device (and the app).  Next, we also believed that the app was a more robust and powerful platform to design immersive learning environments than the browser.  Web applications were thought to be clunky as compared to the potential elegance of the app.

We we’re wrong.  In 2017 online courses continue to be designed for, and run mostly through, our browser based learning management systems (LMS).  Every LMS platform has a mobile app, but they continue to be mostly add-ons and appendages to the primary action that occurs in the browser.

Nobody has come up with a mobile-first, or mobile-only, LMS app that has the potential of supplanting the browser-first design of the dominant learning management systems.

What is going on?  Is the story as simple as the fact that browsers work on computers that have keyboards?

Does the surprising resilience of the browser for digital learning owe its longevity to something as simple as the 1870’s era QWERTY keyboard?

Can we ever envision a time when the input method for digital learning applications will migrate from the keyboard to something else - free the app to (finally) supplant the browser as the primary platform in which online education occurs?

What would a digital learning platform that was designed for a keyboard-enabled iOS or Android device look like - and would it be more elegant and robust than the browser based LMS?


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