By guest expert, John Leh
If your organization is one of the many looking for a better LMS right now, there’s a good chance mobile learning is at the top of your “must have” list. Knowing this, every vendor will say their learning management system works on any mobile device. But before you sign a contract, be sure you understand the logic behind their mobile capabilities.
Why? Here’s an obvious reason. Navigating a full-size webpage on a smartphone is just plain painful:
Pan left … pan right … scroll down … go left again … zoom … right … down … wait — too far … ugh!
How can this kind of learning experience engage anyone — much less customers and business partners who voluntarily choose to sign-up for your training?
Technically, vendors may be telling the truth about their “mobile” LMS. But, as an analyst, I spent several months this year looking closely at some the most popular LMS solutions for extended enterprise training. And believe me, if you dig deeper, you’ll find a variety of mobile limitations. For example:
- You can gain access to LMS content through a browser on any device — but you must pan awkwardly, or text is too tiny for most people to read
- Mobile access is available for learners, but not administrators
- Tablets are supported, but not smartphones. And the tablet version is really designed for the desktop
- The LMS detects mobile users, and serves content in a bare-bones interface with limited functionality.
Why “Total Mobile” Matters
We believe an LMS is “mobile” only if all functionality is available to all types of users — internal and external learners, instructors, business managers and training administrators. We call this “total mobile.” Yet many LMS solutions fall short of the mark.
Clearly, vendors want to offer a “total mobile” learning experience. But that’s much easier said than done. Vendors who developed their current LMS before today’s smartphones and tablets arrived must now double back and mobilize. Unfortunately, it’s not easy or cheap to rewrite code from the ground up.
So, instead, some vendors are tackling mobile functionality in phases. As one LMS vendor put it, “The worst time to ‘mobilize’ is at the end of a project. By then it’s far too late, or you’re forced to rethink lots of decisions you’ve made for the project already.” These vendors have no choice but to invest in a full mobile redesign. It’s a question of when — not if. And delays create an opportunity for newer, cloud-based, “total mobile” LMS competitors to gain market traction.
Mobile-First Development, Two Ways
Cloud LMS providers, born in the age of advanced mobile technology, have developed products with a “mobile-first” mentality based on two main strategies:
Responsive design is the most popular way to provide a full mobile experience. A responsive LMS “senses” and automatically adjusts the display, menus and content for each user’s device and browser window size.
Responsive design is popular because it works with any device without human intervention. It also dramatically reduces the need for developers to test features and content across devices. To see this in action, adjust the size of your browser window while viewing this blog post — this WordPress theme is responsive.
Contrary to popular belief, responsive design doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing choice. Many LMS vendors develop a responsive end-user interface, and build-out apps for specific user groups and special purposes.
Mobile Apps: Web and Native
While responsive design focuses on dynamically resizing the same functionality and content for optimal presentation, apps take it to the next level by enhancing or adding conveniences to existing functionality. There are essentially two kinds of mobile apps:
1) Generic “web” apps that work on any “smart” device browser (without downloads), and
2) Downloadable, “native” apps designed specifically for Android, Apple, Windows and/or Blackberry mobile platforms.
With native apps you can take advantage of touch and swiping technology, as well as inherent device capabilities like location awareness, phone, camera and texting. With native apps, LMS providers need to design, develop, test and maintain apps for all platforms (expensive to maintain) — or choose a preferred platform (limits market appeal).
Mobile Apps: What’s In It For LMS Users?
Looking across user profiles, here’s the kind of functionality we found in today’s mobile LMSs:
- Search and access content
- Switch devices (smartphone > tablet > desktop) without disrupting content, bookmarks or progress tracking
- Search and browse social learning content, people and discussions for just-in-time performance support
- Access multiple content types (e-learning, virtual classrooms, Word docs, PDFs, video, audio and webinars)
- Access profile and transcripts
- Receive and send notifications, registration approvals, private messages and other actionable requests
- Download content to device for offline used — and sync results back to LMS*
- Exchange contact info with others by tapping phones with same app*
- Augmented reality of app use (via phone, Google Glass, tablet) to recognize products or equipment and assist user by launching relevant performance support, social or formal learning*
For Business Managers
- On-the-job training checklists
- Dashboards, tools, reporting to streamline mundane tasks and review team progress
- Customized alerts and notifications
- Integrate mobile with instructor-led training (ILT) — via classroom polls, surveys, and social learning features
- Deliver evaluations during class — with integrated reporting for instructors*
- Mark attendance manually, or app digitally senses/recognizes/logs users entering and leaving class*
Remarkably, administrators are mostly ignored by today’s LMS mobile apps. Other than functions available for managers and instructors, we don’t see much available for learning operations. Perhaps it’s assumed that admin tasks are best suited to desktop computers. Or, perhaps this is an opportunity for differentiation.
*Usually requires native app rather than web app.
What to Ask LMS Vendors
Do you want to verify where your current vendor stands with mobile — or want to consider new options? These questions will help you compare apples to apples:
- What are your current mobile LMS capabilities?
- Do you have responsive design for all user groups? Which types?
- Can you access the LMS and all functions without panning?
- Are there any functions that aren’t accessible via mobile?
- Have you developed mobile apps for the LMS? If so, what value do they add — and for which users?
- Are your mobile apps native or web-based? If native, what platforms are supported today? Why?
- What mobile functionality is on your product roadmap? How firm is that timeline?
Conclusion: Mobile LMS Buying Advice
Vendors are running two concurrent races to fully mobilize the LMS:
1) The race to provide responsive design for all users and
2) The race to develop learning apps for multiple user types — each with distinctive needs
Responsive design simplifies the LMS user experience, and is the easiest way to serve a global extended enterprise audience. On the other hand, mobile apps can replicate and extend core LMS capabilities, while providing opportunities for innovation and differentiation.
Both responsive design and mobile apps are here to stay. Eventually, all LMS solutions will be fully responsive for all users, and a catalog of mobile apps will extend and enhance the core LMS platform. No single mobile strategy is the obvious “right” choice. The best solution depends on your organization’s target audiences, and how they prefer to access and apply training and performance support.
Does your organization use a mobile LMS? What challenges or opportunities are you experiencing? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.
About The Author: Thanks to our guest contributor, John Leh, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. John is an LMS selection consultant and training industry blogger focused on helping organizations plan and implement technology strategies that support extended enterprise learning. He has almost 20 years of experience in the eLearning and LMS industry, having served as a trusted advisor to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $50 million. You can connect with John on LinkedIn on Twitter or by email.
This content is adapted from a post that was originally published on the TalentedLearning blog.