The iPad and the LMS

The iPad is set to illuminate the limits of the browser based LMS. The user experience through iPad optimized Apps is going to be far superior than the browser experience.

March 18, 2010

The iPad is set to illuminate the limits of the browser based LMS. The user experience through iPad optimized Apps is going to be far superior than the browser experience.

We have something like 10 years now of a model in which the learning management system has run through the browser. This has worked well for many reasons, as a non-client approach avoids the need to download, install and update an application. The LMS should run on any computer that has a browser. But I'm wondering if the browser model is getting a bit creaky. The newest versions of the LMS may be moving closer to the promise of a client like experience, with AJAX enabled advanced features (such as drag and drop and site updating without re-loading), but the experience is still pretty clunky. For a while it seemed that the LMS might migrate to an RIA (Rich Internet Application) framework like Adobe AIR, but that model seems to have stalled.

Rather quickly we will see the LMS re-written as an app, first for the mobile device and then for the iPad. The Blackboard purchase of TerriblyClever is a strong signal that the company understands the importance of mobile. The unexpected windfall for LMS providers who invested in competencies to build apps for the iPhone will be the ability to port to the iPad. The app, whether for the iPhone / iPad or Android device, will grow in importance. Living somewhere between the browser and full-client application, the iPhone/iPad/Android App offers advantages over both.

What are the signs that we are running up against the limits of the browser based LMS? Somewhat ironically, one of the emerging limitations of the browser application is a loss of certainty that the LMS can reliably deliver its content. As the browser world has split between IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, we are seeing different behaviors in each browser. Four browsers and numerous versions are just too many to test all features, or to make sure that rich media content always plays as it should. This week I was testing a streaming QuickTime file for some curricular media, and was frustrated that the video did not play consistently across all browsers.

A second limitation of the browser based LMS is the inability to download and sync content. I love my NYTimes iPhone/Touch app because it automatically downloads all the content each time I connect to the Web, stores everything for 7 days, and is available at processor rather than bandwidth speeds. Go ahead and compare the experience on your mobile device between the app and the mobile browser for the same content - the app is always superior. Concern about the app being a limited or closed platform seem overwrought to me. As long as an app for the iPhone and Android exist, I don't worry too much about Blackberry's or feature phones not being able to play. Others have worried that Apple's restrictive licensing and total control of the App store economy is a problematic foundation to build a new class of service and products on. (Listen to the NPR story from 3/13/10 "Is Apple Entering An Age Of Empire?" for more on this perspective). Again, I'm not so concerned about an Apple controlled universe as I'm betting the goodness of the iPad experience will outweigh the downsides of a closed (and proprietary) ecosystem.

I'm betting that we will quickly see amazing LMS apps for the iPad. Our rate limiting step will not be the companies that produce the LMS platforms, or Apple and their control over the app store and the device, but rather the content polices of higher ed. We have a model of curricular content delivery built half on control and half on an uneasy dance with the copyright holders. Our colleges and universities seek to skirt the edge of copyright laws (and hostile lawyers) by locking away articles and media behind authentication and streaming. Articles from library databases are displayed in the browser frame rather than downloaded to the students computer. Curricular media is streamed to avoid students having any ability to share or distribute. But a quality LMS iPad app experience will rest on an ability to download and sync. What we'd want is for all of the curricular content associated with any given course to be available through the iPad app.

The danger is that our models for delivering education will fail to keep up with changes in how consumer and entertainment content is delivered. Books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles, newspapers - they will all move to the app. This is not to say that all content they will exclusively migrate to the app. People will continue to consume content on many platforms, from paper to the Web. But we will want choice and flexibility in how and where we consume content, and providers that do not offer flexibility will loose relevance. Sometimes I read the NYTimes on my Touch, sometimes on the Web, and sometimes I spring for a Sunday paper. A failure to have our educational and course content delivered through an app, whether it be an iPad, iPhone or Android app, will mean that our course content is a little less relevant to our students. A loss of relevance equals a loss of attention, and a loss of attention equals a loss of opportunities for learning.


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