Mobile Learning: Apps vs. Web?

Also some stuff about Clay Shirky’s fabulous new book, Little Rice.

October 19, 2015

The Atavist Magazine has given up its app.  

(I hadn’t realized that Atavist no longer publishes concise books - how did I miss that story?)  

According to the NYTimes, Atavist made this decision because "maintaining a website and getting readers for it while also building an audience of iPhone users with an app took time — too much time…"

What does this Atavist choice to give up apps for mobile storytelling (magazines) say about what we should do for mobile learning?

If you have any doubt that the future of digital learning is mobile then I invite you to read Clay Shirkry’s wonderful new little (as in short - 128 page) book Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream.

I’m not sure why Shirky moved to Shanghai, but I’m guessing that he wants to see what the future will look like first hand.

Little Rice tells the story of where China is going by explaining how smart phones went from rare to ubiquitous in a matter of months in the Middle Kingdom. The smart phone, as Shirky explains, is rapidly becoming the only item that we always have with us. 

The physical has migrated to the digital, hardware to software, and all of this now happens on our phones. Why should education (and credentialing) be any different?  

China, with its rapidly aging workforce and a desperate need to transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, will need to find a way to educate many many more people than a physical / campus-bound system can accomodate. Shirky never says so in his book, but I finished Little Rice thinking that postsecondary education will go mobile first in China.  (And next in India).

Which brings me back to apps or the mobile web for our learning platforms.

If you have used purpose built apps for learning, (such as the confusingly named iTunes U app - which is not the iTunes U open online resource), you quickly realize what a better learning experience an app provides as compared to a mobile website. Content (videos, articles, chapters, presentations), can be downloaded.  Interacting with curricular content is fluid, smooth, and enjoyable.

But not all learning apps are all that great. I have yet to see a web-first LMS make a graceful transition to the app world.

The reason that online learning platforms are designed for the web and not for apps is that the web is open, ubiquitous, and platform agnostic. Apps are closed, limited, and platform dependent.  Learning platforms on the web will work on any device with a browser.

If I worked for any of the open online learning platforms - EdX or Coursera or NovoEd or OpenLearn - I’d create a dedicated mobile only team. I’d send the team to China (or India) and have them design an open app learning platform from scratch.  I would accept that the future of higher education is in the emerging countries of East and South Asia, Africa, and South America.

If the future of learning is digital, and the digital future of learning is mobile, will that future unfold on the mobile web or the app?

Do learning platform providers have the bandwidth to code for both the mobile web and the app?

Is trying to do both mobile web and apps for education limiting the quality and reach of both?

Do you buy that postsecondary education will follow banking, gaming, news, music, video, social, photography, and most everything else to the smart phone?



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