eLearning and Mobile: Should you go Responsive?

Smart phones are the future for both eLearning and the web.

That's what a lot of people have been saying for the last couple of years. The days when people use a laptop or desktop to look at web pages or to do an online course are starting to end, being replaced by doing everything on a smart phone (a mini-computer in all but name). It is quite understandable to see why people think this. Apart from keys and a wallet/purse, a smart phone is probably the only thing which people carry with them everywhere they go. And if you look at the sales figures, smart phones are not only out selling desktops and laptops by many fold, but also desktops and laptops sales have started to fall in real terms. Trends which don't appear to be changing any time soon.Based on all this compelling evidence, it would seem foolish for anybody who owns or runs an eLearning website to not make it look good and easy to use and read on a smart phone. Making either a website responsive (so the layout and content changes automatically depending on the screen size it is viewed on) or a mobile version of it would appear to be the sensible choice for any eLearning website that doesn't want to lose visitors or users. Or is it?

What smart phones are used for

Let me ask you a question. What do you use your smart phone for? Apart from making phone calls, what do you actually do on it?From both my experience and observations, people normally only use their smart phones to do certain types of things. Whether it be using Google maps, checking email, checking the news or sports scores, checking social media networks or playing a simple game. And for the majority of these cases, people don't actually access this information via the web, but through apps.In fact, I would argue that smart phones are not a very good device for accessing the web, and especially not for doing eLearning courses or exercises. Their limited screen size and how mobile browsers display web pages make the experience cumbersome. This is not only on websites which don't have a responsive website or a mobile version, but also on many of those that do as well.It is these limitations that make most people normally only use their smart phones for such specific purposes. They use their smart phone to do simple and quick actions (like checking the weather or news or posting a short update on a social media network account etc...). Any task which requires more time or energy (of which eLearning is a clear example) is often left until later, and normally on a tablet or a desktop/laptop.

Traffic from smart phones

I have seen first-hand how the nature of the content affects the volume of mobile traffic on my own two websites. One of them, geeklessweb.com, contains basic articles for building or improving websites. The other, blairenglish.com, provides online interactive English vocabulary exercises that people have to invest their time in to complete. When both of the websites were non-responsive (I very recently changed geeklessweb to be responsive), the amount of traffic from mobile (non-tablet) devices varied greatly between the two. For geeklessweb, over 30% of traffic came from them, while on blairenglish, it was just over 10%.Although I have seen the percentage of traffic from mobile devices for both websites increase over the years, it has grown more rapidly for geeklessweb.com. This would seem to clearly demonstrate that people use their smart phones to perform different types of tasks on the web.

The complexities of responsive design

You can argue that even if a website only gets a small percentage of its traffic from smart phones, it would still make sense to make it responsive or to create a mobile version of it? I would agree with this, but the issue is making even a simple website or blog responsive isn't an easy thing to do. It's actually both very complex and time-consuming (of which I know from my own experience of converting one of my own websites). Even well-known and respected web designers have commented on the difficulties of doing it (listen to Jeffery Zeldman's opinion on the topic, Responsive Images Get Real). As a result, for most simple websites converting to a responsive layout is going to be costly (either in terms of time or money).And as we all know, eLearning websites are far from simple. So you can probably duplicate the cost of doing it.

Is it worth it?

And this is the biggest problem, the cost. Is it worth both the time and the money for an eLearning website to convert to a responsive layout or create a mobile version if only a small percentage of users are going to be accessing it through their smart phone?It is all too easy to not think too much about this and get swept along with the current trends in the industry. Over the last couple of years, more and more eLearning websites have started to market their websites as 'mobile-friendly' or push their mobile app. But is this really an important selling point in making people use their service? In my opinion, I don't think it is. I don't believe that for most eLearning websites a large percentage of users will ever come from smart phones, because of this type of device's limitations. I think that the future of eLearning is going to be on the tablet. And the fortunate thing about this is, is that there is less need to make a responsive website or an app for it.For some types of websites (news, sports, blogs etc…) I think having a responsive website or a mobile version is necessary. But for eLearning websites, I think that the benefits of making them responsive are far outweighed by the costs.