Are apps the future of e-learning?

I came fairly late to the multi-touch iOS/Android/W7 Mobile world, having been stuck on a 2-year contract with a Nokia smart phone that was great compared to the phones I’d had before, but which I now realise was hopelessly behind the game. Like millions of others I never thought apps would make much of a difference to my life but now find myself turning to them as first choice to provide a myriad of services.

How can this be? Well, apps tend to do one job really well with the minimum of fuss. They are formatted perfectly for the devices on which they are based. They tend not to tempt you away from the job in hand with links, pop-ups and extraneous clutter. They can usually be accessed with a single touch. By comparison, I find that I hardly ever use the browser on my iPhone, mainly because most sites are unreadable or unusable. On the iPad,where the screen real estate is so much much greater I would not hesitate to open the browser, but only when I knew that there wasn’t an app available that would do the same job.

So how far can we take the idea of apps? How well can they be applied to a learning context? Here’s my assessment:

Viewing content: Smart phones and tablets are well suited to delivering text, animation, audio and video content (although there is still the snag of no Flash delivery on iOS). The point is, would you want the content to be packaged up in individual apps or accessed from a gateway app (like iTunes, iBooks or YouTube or a full-scale LMS) that provides a library of content? Clearly it would get ridiculous if every piece of content required you to install a separate app, particularly if you were going to look at it just once. But if you were devoting your efforts to learning one thing in particular (speaking better Spanish, improving basic literacy/numeracy, how to close sales, etc.) then the argument shifts in favour of the app. After all, you can always delete it when you’re finished with it.

Creating content: Here the devices themselves provide the greatest limitations. Obviously full-scale content creation applications (text editors, graphics programs, multimedia tools, etc.) work just fine on a PC or Mac with a large screen and lots of memory, but mobile devices are much more limited. If a learner needs to have multiple windows open and do a lot of copying and pasting, then apps are probably not the answer, but how often do we ask students to create work that complex?

Collaborating with peers: All the usual suspects in terms of social media already have very successful apps so the argument is already won, but there’s plenty of scope to extend this model to more specialist tools designed for employees of a particular organisation or students on a particular course. Mobile devices are perfectly adequate for entering short textual entries to  forums, wikis, blogs, etc. so all we’re waiting for is mobile versions of existing tools such as SharePoint, Moodle and the like.

Collaborating live: All the major web conferencing vendors, including WebEx, Adobe and the like have apps available already for a wide range of devices and people are beginning to use them. Enough said.

Performance support: We’ve already talked about the delivery of content and the use of tools such as forums, but there’s another area where I see apps playing a role, and that’s as decision aids. If you need just-in-time support in solving a particular problem, then you don’t want to wade through a performance support portal. I think there’s a strong case for building individual apps for decision aids and troubleshooters, particularly when they’re used frequently.

Of course there may be categories I’ve left out or arguments I’ve missed. What do you think?

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