A Closer Look at Mobile App Development for Higher Education

I have been blogging a fair bit lately about the competing mLearning efforts between Blackboard and the Moodle community. Much of the conversation so far has focused on the front end apps and whether web-based or native apps are better. (The latest is that there is a native iPhone app for Moodle in addition to the mobile browser app.) But let’s be clear: Many of the smartphone apps you have for your iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or whatever were built by lone developers working part time. I don’t want to trivialize that work, but it’s hard to see how one platform is going to achieve a durable competitive advantage against the others based on its mobile client.

I’m going to draw on some recent conversations about mobile apps in the Sakai community to reflect a little on what it takes to build an mLearning platform. In the process, I’ll also think out loud about what kind of a business this area will or will not sustain in the long run.

Let’s start by looking at Blackboard’s current offering, Blackboard Mobile Central. Properly speaking, this isn’t an mLearning application in the sense that it’s not mediating educational interactions. It provides the following important but not directly educational information:

  1. Campus maps
  2. Course catalog information
  3. Campus calendar
  4. Campus photos
  5. Campus news
  6. Campus sports info (e.g., scores, game schedule, etc.)
  7. Campus directory

It turns out that Oxford University and Indiana University have built similar sorts of applications themselves. Oxford’s mobile app supports the following information:

  1. Campus maps
  2. Campus directory
  3. Library catalog search
  4. University podcast access and search
  5. Oxford University web site search
  6. Examination results
  7. Weather
  8. Oxford (both university and city) webcam access
  9. Status of key university IT services

IU Mobile supports the following information:

  1. Campus maps
  2. Campus calendar
  3. Campus news
  4. Campus directory
  5. Indiana University web site search
  6. Status of key university IT services
  7. Access to some LMS content (e.g., announcements, discussion forum posts, etc.)
  8. Campus classified ads
  9. Emergency contacts
  10. Bus schedules
  11. Campus alerts, including emergency alerts

Both Oxford and IU use open source middleware frameworks to create their apps. Oxford uses Molly, which is a framework they developed themselves for their project and released under something called the Academic Free License. IU uses the MIT Mobile Web middleware. (And yes, MIT has built one of these mobile apps too.)

Here’s a presentation on the MIT framework. (For whatever reason, the SlideShare gods won’t let me embed this presentation in my post today. Sorry.)

Let’s dig into that MIT framework a bit. So what’s going on here, architecturally speaking? A lot of this framework seems to be dedicated to creating a kind of mobile web page template and rendering it appropriately for different phones. In other words, it’s about cross-platform UI portability. This makes sense if you’re taking a browser-based approach. It’s not clear to me that you need this if you’re building native apps.

The other important element is the ability to connect to the data sources. If your data sources have been built with RESTful web services or, alternatively, their own mobile apps, then you probably don’t need middleware to do that either. But there are a number of campus data sources that do not yet have this. For example, Blackboard Mobile Central pulls course catalog information. Most SIS’s don’t yet have a lot of RESTful services. Therefore, you probably need middleware to pull the data and render into a form that a smartphone app can use, and you probably also need some consulting services to hook it up. (By the way, I believe this is one of the main drivers for the increase in Blackboard’s  consulting business last quarter.)

With that in mind, let’s look at the economics. Is developing mobile apps for universities a sustainable business? I think the answer is yes, for the the next few years, but the prospects diminish somewhat after that. Blackboard seems to very be happy with the sales that they are making, so that is one indicator that the market is there for either a combination product/service offering  or an open source-based service offering—as long as there are important campus apps that do not provide the right kind of services. I suspect that there will be plenty of demand for the next three to five years. Once campus apps are all providing appropriate data feeds (or possibly even their own mobile apps), then demand will slack off. I don’t think it goes away entirely, though. Campuses are likely to continue bringing long tail data sources online for some time to come, and some of these will be useful in a mobile context. Therefore, they will probably still want to have some sort of a mobile app factory. In this scenario, the MIT web-based approach seems to me to be a better bet than the Blackboard native app approach. Once you get beyond eight or ten data sources (e.g., schedule, directory, maps, etc.), then enhancing your native app for each platform starts to become really costly and labor-intensive.  You need a factory, which is exactly what the MIT framework provides.

Is there a business selling LMS-integrated mobile capabilities as a separately licensed add-on product? I don’t think so. The LMS is one category of academic software in which there has been relatively rapid progress toward exposing the services you’d need to build mLearning integrations. As these services become available, the work shifts from building out integrations to building out mobile UIs, where one part-time developer can create an interesting app. This is not an area where the scale of a larger corporation provides a competitive advantage over distributed open source communities or tiny garage outfits. There will be significant competitive pressure on LMS vendors (and open source communities) to bundle mobile capabilities with the core platform.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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