Educational apps or mobile-optimised websites?

Me devolvedThe OU is working on a number of iPhone applications as well as optimising some of its websites for mobile delivery.  One example of an iPhone app is Devolve Me where you can see how you might have looked back in the mists of time.  Strangely, I end up looking pretty much as I do already.  Devolve Me is just a bit of fun but it does demonstrate the difference in the graphical and interactive potential of an educational app compared to a website.

I’ve been wondering for a while whether we are better off going down the route of ensuring our websites are optimised for mobile delivery or developing bespoke applications for the iPhone, Android platform etc. My thoughts have been further stimulated by recent conversations with Mike Innes and Shailey Minocha at the Open University.

ReadWriteWeb refers to a recent report by Taptu on the state of what it calls the Mobile Touch Web. Taptu believes there are already more than double the number of websites which are optimised for mobile delivery with icon-based navigation than there are iPhone apps. Taptu also predicts that the number of such sites is set to grow much more quickly than the number of iPhone apps.  That’s pretty obvious really as it’ll become the norm for websites to be optimised for mobile as well as larger screen delivery.

So should we use up valuable development resource in building educational apps for our students as the University of Saskatchewan has done or should we go down the web browser route like Oxford University? Here are some thoughts on both routes:

Advantages of educational apps

  • Clever and pleasing forms of navigation are possible
  • The entire screen can be used
  • Content can be stored for offline access more easily
  • Functionality such as GPS can be tapped into more easily
  • The app is self-contained and perhaps more visible once you’ve got it – it may be more likely to take precedence on your phone’s “desktop”
  • There may be marketing benefits for the institution or a stronger feeling of ownership by the user – it feels like you’ve got a product

Advantages of educational mobile-optimised sites

  • Should be cheaper to develop – if done properly should work on all platforms rather than having to be recreated for each one
  • No need to waste time downloading apps – which would also be a barrier to access for some users
  • HTML5 makes various things possible which previously could only be done in an app eg offline storage, animations
  • Content and the site itself may be more easily indexed by search engines and therefore found by users

Highly interactive games-type applications may continue to require bespoke mobile apps but for most educational software I can’t help thinking the mobile-optimised website route will be the one to head down as browsers allow increasingly sophisticated forms of interaction.

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4 Responses to Educational apps or mobile-optimised websites?

  1. colchambers says:

    I’ve been considering the same question myself.

    As a developer I would suggest finding a way to get the best of both worlds. Right now web apps can’t do enough on mobile devices and local apps have to be built for each device. It’s a catch 22. It’s possible to build a website in such a way that’s mobile friendly and at the same time provides educational apps content and support.

    In this way the effort of delivering a mobile site can also help the educational app. The educational app then provides functionality a website cannot at this point. the theory is that over time the two approaches merge. Apps and websites become interlinked so well we are left to focus on the learning potential in each situation.

    Basically we deliver on both sides. We just figure out how much resource we allocate to each.

  2. jobadge says:

    I have an iTouch and general prefer to browse to mobile sites. When Buzz was launched, it detected my iTouch intereface an immediately suggested I bookmark the page to my homescreen. I treat this like a ‘buzz app’, it sits on there on my homescreen, reminding me of the google branding (since it has a nice clear icon) and I therefore I use it regularly. This is perhaps a half-way house between the app and the mobile site. Of course, behind the bookmark needs to be a site that displays well on the mobile interface. The OU site is extremely itouch unfriendly – the tiny tiny writing at the top right to navigate between studenthome and tutorhome makes for an unpleasant browsing experience :-(

  3. niall says:

    Colin: nice approach but you’ve still got all the disadvantages of apps – in particular the expense of production.

    Jo: that’s interesting – the Google site is definitely a mobile site rather than an app in that case but sounds like a good way to make it feel like an app. As far as the OU sites are concerned we’re working on it – it’s a major item on the roadmap.

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