Native Mobile Vs Web-Based Learning: Web Is Here To Stay
The brief gold rush of mobile app stores and native applications convinced a lot of the people (including lots of industry pundits) that the web as we know it would soon be over.
Fast forward to late 2015 and this hardly seems to be the case anymore.
With the initial excitement over mobile apps over, and with very few pure mobile success stories of any significance, the tech industry began to re-evaluate the staying power of the humble web page.
Heck, even most “native” apps nowadays are little more than pretty facades for web applications. The trend has started to spread to the desktop too, with technologies like Electron that allow you to distribute web apps that behave like regular desktop applications (the Slack collaboration app is such an example).
So where does that leave web-based learning and the LMS platforms?
Well, the fact is, eLearning never really left the web in the first place. While there has been a lot of interest in mobile learning (or “mLearning” as the tech media prefer it), most mobile learning environments are either based on mobile websites or on thin clients to their respective web services.
The first case is how the eFrontPro LMS, Epignosis’ leading Learning Management System for private Cloud implementations, handles mobile learning: It leverages the existing web infrastructure, and uses it to serve regular online learning content to cater to mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and phablets.
It’s an approach that has many advantages and very few downsides.
For one, it doesn't require installing anything. As with the desktop web, you can open a new account and get started in seconds, and your eLearning data (which can go up to many gigabytes) will be stored on the cloud, not occupying the previous little storage space available on your mobile device.
You also don’t need to deal with the mobile OS companies, who often serve as gatekeepers for their app stores, and can delay the release of crucial bug-fixes and updates, restrict what apps can do (e.g. iOS apps can’t include links to third party subscription services), add their own “app-store-tax” (a 30% cut in the case of Apple and Google), and sometimes even capriciously reject apps altogether.
You also get to access your data from any device you have, everywhere in the world, which is not the case with most mobile apps. All your courses, progress, bookmarks, messages, profile info, etc., are there for you the moment you login to the service, with no need for syncing. This is not just convenient for jumping between mobile and desktop versions of your LMS courses: It also lets you just as easily move to a new device (and even a new platform) when it comes time to update your mobile phone.
The mobile version would often be customized so that it looks better in a small screen, or prioritize learning in small chunks (microlearning), but it would still have access to the whole content and feature set of the web app you access from your laptop. And you could even bypass the mobile customizations and access the “big” desktop version of the app directly from your phone.
With web-based mobile learning you have absolute feature parity between the desktop and mobile versions, as both access the exact same underlying web app. That's not just important for you and your learners, but it also enables the LMS company to focus on a single technology and improve it faster, which would not have been the case if they put out separate native and web versions of their LMS.
Of course there’s a downside too: Native apps can get closer to the metal, and thus become faster. But with modern mobile CPUs and GPUs being more than fast enough (even, as is the case of Apple’s A9, rivaling current laptop CPUs), and with eLearning in general having quite modest computing needs, we find that there's little or negligible negative impact from opting for a web based mobile app.
In our experience, mobile browser performance has not been a problem ever since 2010 or so (of course mobile internet speed is another matter, but that affects native mobile apps equally, since they too have to communicate with some central server).
A final benefit of using a web based mobile client for your eLearning is that integrations, template customizations and scripts that you've added to your desktop web service work just as well in your phone. Native mobile apps, on the other hand, have few, if any, customization options when it comes to their UI and behavior -- and all predetermined by their developers, whereas in an LMS like eFrontPro you get to add your own totally custom scripts, layouts and color schemes.
Of course, you can't just give mobile users the web address of your eLearning service and call it a day. eFrontPro, for example, uses a custom tailored, responsive UI based on open standards (the popular Bootstrap UI framework) that has been finely tuned to look nice in both your PC and your phone (and anything in between).
To Web Or Not To Web?
Native technologies come and go, once mighty platforms can disappear in the span of a few years (remember Palm OS and Blackberry?), but the web is a distributed, fault-tolerant system that has been built to last, and it will be with us for a long time to come, whether for socializing, doing business, or learning.