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There’s an app for that - but what kind?

3rd Jun 2013
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Award-winning developer Mark Bennett looks at the different approaches for developing mobile learning apps.

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets in the workplace represents a game-changing technology shift. Among the key challenges for L&D professionals today are deciding from a strategic perspective how best to use mobile platforms for learning and what is the most effective development approach to use. In light of the number of different devices and platforms currently in the workplace, changing demographics, and how globalisation is shaping a more mobile workforce, this is not a simple task.

Since Apple coined the phrase 'There’s an app for that' some five years ago, there has been a rapid rise of applications for a huge variety of purposes. Yet mobile learning apps have been slower to take off than many industry observers and commentators anticipated. However, there appears to be plenty of clear signs that mobile learning has finally arrived.

Towards Maturity’s recent annual benchmark study shows that 70% of organisations plan to implement mobile learning in the next two years. Furthermore, mobile learning apps are on the rise with 25% of organisations developing and using mobile apps in L&D.

So what are the best options available today? Essentially, there are three main types of mobile apps - native, mobile web and hybrid - each with its own set of pros and cons.

Native apps

Native apps are apps that are built for and installed on a specific platform such as iOS or Android using platform specific development tools. Apps developed specifically for iOS for example, will reside directly on the user’s iPad or iPhone. This approach means that content developers can maximise the capabilities and performance of the platform to enhance the user experience and learners do not need to be online. However, native apps written for one platform cannot be deployed on another and therefore this can be a costly and time consuming option for those responsible for developing and maintaining content in a multi-platform workplace.

Mobile web apps

Mobile web apps are not installed on the device itself like native apps, instead they are server-side applications that are accessed via a web browser. These apps can be created in a variety of programming languages. Typically the server will detect which device is making the request for learning content and the design of the learning will be adjusted accordingly. A key benefit with mobile apps is that they work across different platforms. However, there are some limitations to what you can do through a browser and internet connectivity is essential. 

Hybrid apps

As the name suggests, hybrid apps combine technologies from native and mobile web apps to gain the benefits of each. The app resides on the device itself, similarly to a native app, with today’s solutions typically capitalising on an HTML5 based user interface with content downloaded from an LMS as and when it is needed.  

HTML5 brings a number of clear benefits to content developers and users alike. Content can be viewed online and offline with no restrictions on layout or interactivity, and progress can be tracked and scored back to your LMS. One of the greatest benefits is that developers can create one learning programme to work on any platform or device enabling more seamless and cost-effective cross-platform delivery of high impact and engaging learning content. Also, developing one version of software for all devices makes the task of updating and maintaining content a much simpler one.

So which is the best approach? There is no one-size fits all approach. Choosing the right solution depends on a number of factors including available resources and budget, connectivity and technology infrastructure, interactivity and user experience and the functionality required.

Where multi-platform support is a must, mobile web apps and hybrid apps tend to have the edge. More and more employees are bringing their own devices to work and BYOD policies are becoming increasingly commonplace. So unless you can afford to develop different learning solutions for the many different devices and platform deployed by your organisation, going native might be cost-prohibitive despite the fact it can offer compelling benefits for more complex apps such as animation-rich apps used in serious games.

Industry analysts Gartner predict that more than 50% of all mobile apps deployed by 2016 will be hybrid due to the need for enterprises to support multiple platforms. This is likely to filter through to the m-learning marketplace.

Whichever route you choose to take, remember the learning goals should be at the heart of the decision ultimately.

Mark Bennett is an award-winning senior content developer at Kallidus. He won elearning designer of the year in the 2012 ELearning Awards. For further information about Kallidus visit www.kallidus.com or follow @KallidusLimited on Twitter

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