The odds are good that a sizable portion of your learners have accessed the internet using a mobile device in the past year. In 2010, it is estimated that 40% of all US adults have used their mobile phone to access the internet, e-mail, or instant messaging. That number is up from 32% in 2009, and it continues to grow at a rapid pace. People are demanding more and more services to be available at any time, any place, at the touch of a button. Your learners expect to have in their pockets access to e-mail, social networking, maps, and restaurant reviews, to name a few services. Why shouldnâ€™t they have access to their Learning Management System (LMS) as well?
Whether your learners carry a briefcase or a backpack, they want to use their mobile phone to view their courses, their grades, their assignments, and all the other goodness that your LMS provides to them when they’re at their desk. By extending the reach of your LMS to mobile devices, you and your learners gain the following benefits:
- Increased engagement
- Potential for new learning activities that were previously difficult or impossible (imagine a biology student taking a photo of a plant found on campus and uploading it to a discussion board on your LMS to ask what species it is).
- Expanded access to the LMS (imagine waiting in an airport for a flight, receiving an e-mail announcing a new compliance course, and then enrolling in the course directly from your smartphone)
There are many different ways to expand an application to the small screen. If you want the least amount of work, you could choose to do nothing at all. Web browsers on smartphones are getting better and better. Take an iPhone and browse to your LMS. It will likely work. However, due to the small screen, lack of keyboard, and low-power processor, the experience will probably not be as pleasant as you’d want, especially if you’d like to encourage learners to access the LMS using their phone. Thus, the first best practice of bringing an application to mobile is to design for mobile; don’t try to take your full-screen application and tweak it to mobilize it. Mobile devices have different constraints and affordances. By designing for mobile to begin with you can navigate the pitfalls of the constraints and even take advantage of the affordances (e.g. having a camera).
If you’re designing the mobile experience for an existing application, we recommend starting by thinking about the use cases or scenarios that you’d like to enable from the mobile application. You probably don’t want to enable all the use cases that are in your full application because some of them would be too awkward or error-prone on a mobile device. Would you want instructors grading assignments from a phone while sitting in traffic? At the same time, you may want to include new usage scenarios on the mobile application that just aren’t practical on a desktop or laptop (remember the photo example from above?). So take some time to think through what activities make sense to be performed from a mobile device.
Thinking through what activities should be supported is the hardest part of extending your LMS to mobile devices. Once that’s done you’re left with the technical challenge of implementing those activities. At this point, think about what devices you intend to support. Some of the options at the moment are the following:
- Windows Mobile
- Windows Phone 7
The bad news is that each of the above platforms has (or likely will have) a significant user base, and an application written for one platform will not work on any of the others. Therefore, unless you’re in a position to dictate the mobile devices used by your learners, you’ll likely have to support several mobile platforms.
There’s some good news here, however. The HTML5 standard, which is in development, could make it easier to build cross-browser, cross-platform web applications that perform like desktop applications. Even without HTML5 you could create a mobile-friendly web version of your LMS that is likely to work across multiple platforms. By using this approach, you would lose access to hardware items like the camera or the phone’s microphone.
There’s even better news for users of some of the most popular off-the-shelf LMS’s. If your organization uses Blackboard, for example, Blackboard Mobile Learn already supports iPhone, Android, and Blackberry devices. For organizations that use Moodle, there are several options for bringing the LMS to mobile screens. Of course, if you have a custom LMS, you’re probably looking at a custom development effort to support mobile devices.