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Our Mobile Strategy

John Arthur Berg, the director of product and marketing at itslearning, provides details about itslearning’s mobile strategy, shedding light on the company’s decision to focus on a responsive design web solution.

In September, we introduced improvements to navigating itslearning in mobile view, including a new responsive header and personal menus that adjust to fit mobile screens and home and user icons that collapse the menus. But why did itslearning choose the responsive design route instead of building a native app? In this letter, John Arthur Berg shares details from itslearning’s mobile strategy, which is built around responsive design. Here, he answers the question many of our users are wondering: where is the itslearning app? Citing trends in the technology sector and the incompatibility of an app with itslearning’s pedagogical philosophy, Berg explains why a web centric platform is the best option for our users going forward.

Dear itslearning users!

In September we launched a new version of itslearning and with it came the first visible result of our efforts to improve support for mobile devices. Most of our customers and users were very pleased with the release. I say most because I know some will disagree with our strategy – they want native apps. To explain why we chose a responsive design approach I will elaborate a bit more on our mobile strategy.

In the past few years, a tremendous shift has occurred in the computer industry. PC sales are plummeting while smartphones and tablets are taking over as your new true personal computer. The educational field is catching up and this year it really feels like there is a shift taking place amongst our customers and users.

While the mobile paradigm is a leap in consumer hardware, the pendulum has swung in the software business. Many are touting the return of the world before the web; rich apps that sit on top of (proprietary) Mobile OS, delivering a rich user experience, snappy user interaction and tight integration with the underlying device’s hardware (and its sensors). The comeback of the “Client-Server” model is in many ways a magnificent one, fixing so many things that were 'wrong' with its predecessors; distribution (App store), security (Sandbox), compatibility, complexity, etc.

Despite all this, itslearning has chosen not to focus its efforts around supporting new form factors and devices on building apps. We were born in HTML, delivered by the browser and carried forward by the explosion of bandwidth and connectivity around the world – and we are sticking to it.

The future is not apps and one-off downloads; it is always “on”, always ready and responsive. Use itslearning on your phone, then laptop, and then back to your phone. These devices are windows into the world of itslearning and we want our users to be able to use them anywhere, anytime, in a way that suits them. The view from the window should be as detailed, spectacular and rich as possible. It should be the same view no matter how small or large the window is. From now on, most of our efforts will go into what we call RWD- 'Responsive Web Design' and HTML5. RWD simply means that your web app responds to your device screen resolution and presents a well-designed and accessible interface. (Log in to itslearning with your iPad, rotate it and you will see it with your own eyes). HTML5 is important in providing cross browser, cross OS and cross device interoperability without the need for OS specific plugins. The itslearning RWD site can be added to device home pages like an app, and started like an app, but be unconstrained by the device OS and the rules of the device app library.

To put your mind at ease, I will let you in on some of the reasons why we have chosen the path we are on today. Whether you agree or not might depend on your point of view, but I hope at least to show you why we believe strongly in this always “on” future.


Our product strategy:

We summarize our product strategy in three points:

1. Support for best practice teaching and learning processes
2. The best user experience across browsers, devices and OS
3. An open platform, accessible by all.

Our process focus means not putting technology first but processes first. We believe that many of the core teaching and learning processes (planning, assessing, and reporting) can be best achieved on a web-centric platform. The process of creating a lesson plan, executing it, assessing the activities and having your students reflect on it requires a type of openness not always found on native app platforms. Apps tend to be views onto sites allowing updates and postings, but not the sort of interaction we want for our users. You might be able to create a better user experience for one or two types of devices using a native app, but our mission is to support as many Device/OS combinations as possible, and this is best served via the web. We aspire to be an open platform– HTML5, CSS3 and many of the Web Services we implement are built on open standards– a transparency you will not find on OS specific apps.


Our customers:

While teachers and students might be closest to our heart, our customers are the ones making the big decisions: headmasters, school administrators, LEAs and other (mostly publicly owned) institutions. Fuelled by their own strategy and procurement regulations, the infrastructure that itslearning will be deployed to is very heterogeneous. Throw in the range of bring your own device (BYOD) programs that will be implemented in the years to come and what you see is a range of evolving devices and form factors. Notebooks, Chromebooks, tablets, mobiles, Windows, Android, iOS. We believe that the best way to consistently serve them all is through our web application.

One of our advantages as a company is the competence we have to build and scale a platform around a technology stack. We understand the boundaries and possibilities of the web. This has evolved for years (rather successfully). Building and scaling out a strategy around native apps would mean starting from scratch in terms of learning the (sometimes painful) lessons needed to succeed. Sometimes you need that kind of disruption to move forward, but this time we're sticking to what we know best.

Are we going to be left behind by tons of competitors scrambling to build native apps? While a healthy dose of paranoia is important in any line of business, other established learning platforms seem to be struggling with their native apps. Providing a limited set of functionality in your native app when your users are used to the full experience of the web seems to attract 1-star ratings and negative reviews. New players in the market with limited functionality to start off with have an easier time getting their apps right, but we can't dumb down our platform or philosophy.

We believe in our strategy, but regardless of RWD or native apps, we still have work to do to create a great user experience on mobile devices. In this release we have used a lot of resources on the RWD framework itself, in addition to making our menus responsive. In other words, we have been tuning the engine and tightening the steering but we still need to reupholster the interior and repaint the car. While we have taken a big step in the right direction, we have a lot more work to do over the coming releases.

We are committed to seeing our strategy through and we would love to hear which features in itslearning you think should be prioritized next!

Best regards, John Arthur

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