Making Effective Apps: Factors to Consider

May 13, 2012

Mobile learning

Teaching and learning using mobile devices is fundamentally changing classrooms everywhere. These devices are shifting how students read, communicate and think (and have been for a while now). The potential for using these devices for learning really caught on when the iPad was introduced in April 2010. 

While there’s significant effort to bring the textbook to the mobile learning medium with immersive, multimedia experiences, there’s not much yet available for other instructional purposes. A wide range of factors may account for this education “app gap”, and I wanted to call attention to a few in this post.


Research and our work with clients suggests there are seven issues to address:

Product Design

Apps serve a single purpose for a single audience: making an app deceptively simple is significantly more difficult than one imagines. It takes several iterations of concepts, app flow, wireframe design and user testing to achieve a quality product.

Education apps generally fall into two categories: Structured Learning Experiences or Open-Ended Instructional Tools. 

Structured Learning Experiences

Open-ended Instructional Tools



Lower planning effort

Higher planning effort

Difficult to incorporate

Easy to incorporate

Stand-alone curriculum

Supplemental curriculum


Specialized purpose

Lower teacher involvement

Higher teacher involvement

Each type of app has its advantages and disadvantages as this table illustrates. The iterative app design process works through several of these to determine which approach is best for its circumstances. 

Content Management

For Web applications (the primary means of delivering instructional technology in classrooms today, unlike CD-ROMs a decade before), the tool of choice for interactive multimedia has been Adobe Flash. The declaration by Apple that iOS would never support Flash has caused a significant shift in how to deliver interactive multimedia for mobile learning.  The alternatives are many, and depend on the nature of the interaction (i.e., game-based, 3D, or cross-platform reusability) and the toolsets to support it (e.g., Ansca’s Corona, Unity’s 3d engine, or Adobe’s Edge are just some examples). In many cases, the best choice is to strive for future friendliness because the situation is still very much evolving. The clear front-runner in this case is to use HTML5, CSS3, and a combination of JavaScript libraries. 

Classroom Integration

Many apps fail to gain adoption because they have no easy way for students to share their work with their teacher. More successful apps offer at least two means of sharing, distributing, and collecting user-generated content: Email, Google Docs/Drive, Dropbox, Evernote are the most frequently used methods.  (I suspect third-party education solutions will make this easier in the next 18 months.)