Technology Research

In Search of the Killer Mobile App, Part 1: Will LMS Vendors Lead the Way for Higher Ed?

You can read Part 2 of this post, “Killer Apps in The Wild (aka App-nado)” right here. Think of the last time you told a coworker about an app, one you recommended that they download right away. Was it education related? Did it specifically target higher education users? We’re going to go out on a limb and assume that it didn’t, because—from where we sit—the “must-have” app for higher ed doesn’t exist yet. For one thing, mobile app development occurs at a much faster pace in P-12 than in higher education. That much is evident from the thousands of apps in the Apple iTunes and Google Play stores. We know it’s not a case of more accessible design principles, because they’re the same in both markets. In fact, Christopher Pedregal’s recent EdSurge article presented five best practices for education mobile app development that are just as applicable to traditional undergraduates and adult learners as they are to younger students. If it’s not a question of design, why is there is a dearth of native mobile apps for higher education students and faculty? Among the few available apps for higher ed, the majority are in the LMS space. When Eduventures reviewed the features of 20 LMS’s for our Overview of Learning Management Systems, we intentionally excluded mobile apps from our definition of the core LMS experience. As part of our research, we interviewed institutional LMS buyers. While nearly all interviewees mentioned wanting a mobile responsive user experience for the LMS platform, none indicated that it was a required buying criterion. Further review of some of these institutions’ Google Analytics accounts revealed that, on average, only 22% of visitors to these colleges’ LMS subdomains (including sites like blackboard.college.edu) came from mobile devices (e.g., phones and tablets). For learners, however, a mobile experience is not optional, and they’re certainly not willing to pay for it as an add-on to the traditional LMS. A mobile experience that delights student and faculty users is crucial for adoption and utilization. Because these users’ satisfaction ties to contract renewal and expanded service among education clients, LMS vendors that want to remain competitive need a responsive design to appeal to all users. This is now true across all segments of the edtech industry.

Extending the Core LMS Experience

If none of these can be dubbed a killer app, it’s not for lack of effort or attention to the mobile experience. All of the LMS vendors we profiled either already had a mobile responsive user experience or announced a product roadmap to develop one in 2015. Most LMS vendors also support a truly native mobile application experience that leverages the institutional investment in the core learning platform. In most cases, however, these apps’ core features simply replicate functionality from the desktop LMS experience rather than offer features that are unique to the mobile experience. The table below lists all of the major LMS vendors that have one or more native apps listed in the Apple App Store at the time of publication, the average rating since the product launched, and the date that the app was last updated. In Search of the killer mobile education apps From these ratings and our own assessment of the LMS vendors’ app offerings, here’s what we’ve learned about the market of available apps:
  • Canvas’ mobile app is certainly the most popular. What stands out about it is that you can do nearly everything you would expect to do on the desktop version of the Canvas LMS. The app supports the iPad and iPhone and integrates with file-sharing apps like Dropbox and Google Drive. It includes many of the must-have tools for mobile assignment submission and grading. Students and faculty can facilitate the administrative aspects of learning, from content review, assignment submission, grading, and grade publishing. While some of the more advanced types of assessments (like adaptive learning) aren’t included and still require the desktop experience (or a dedicated mobile app for exams), this app comes the closest to achieving the full LMS experience on a mobile device.
  • Schoology also provides a comprehensive LMS experience in its mobile app. It has been updating its app frequently, but will need to develop new features that appeal to higher education users. While adoption rates among P-12 users have been very high, time will tell if the same level of adoption carries through to higher ed users to make this a must-have app for all institutions investing in Schoology.
  • D2L provides a very engaging user experience in its Brightspace Pulse mobile app, which includes a comprehensive scheduling view that shows students their expected course loads over time. The feature students talk about most is the ability to get grades in a push notification and slowly swipe the grade into view, building anticipation or relieving anxiety depending on the student’s expectations. Ironically, Oklahoma State University released its own statement last week lauding a student who had developed an Android app to quickly access grades. Presumably, he didn’t know that D2L already offered the feature. It’s hard to tell how widespread the adoption of D2L’s app has been, since it doesn’t release data on installation volume since the app’s 2015 launch. Among the few reviews in the Apple App store, most appear to be negative or bring up issues with app stability. While some features definitely capture students’ attention, it isn’t clear that they are crucial to teaching and learning.
  • Blackboard has several apps in the Apple App store, but the user reviews and product update frequency tell a cautionary tale. Blackboard’s highest rated mobile app is still Collaborate Mobile (which enables groups to collaborate and participate in live video lectures), even though it hasn’t been updated since 2013. Similarly, Bb Grader (an offline grading tool that enables faculty to store students’ work on their tablet and sync scores, notes, and rubrics with the LMS) has not been updated since 2015, even though the user reviews and comments provide a wealth of product feedback. This may be due to a broader change in Blackboard’s product strategy, as it shifts away from a single app for all LMS features to separate apps for each role (e.g., student, teacher). In fact, Blackboard just updated Bb Student, its first role-focused app, last month. Now that the latest version of Bb Collaborate is only accessible from within Bb Student, it makes sense that Blackboard would end work on the standalone Bb Collaborate app. We anticipate that the killer app for teachers will relate to grading and see great potential for Blackboard’s role-based app for teachers if it can improve upon the foundation of Bb Grader.
What conclusions can we draw? Within the relatively limited higher ed app market, most available apps are offered by LMS vendors. While we see potential in the current app offerings, none is currently a must-have app. You can read Part 2 of this post right here, where we present several higher ed apps from outside the LMS market that we think could become killer apps if they hit the necessary adoption threshold.  

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