We’re living in a digital age where almost anything you’re looking for is online or available through an app. Education is following suit, with courses available through a web, native or progressive web app on your device. But the ultimate question that EdTech professionals are asking is which one they should choose. Is one inherently better than the others? Is it a matter of preference according to your target audience? We’ll be going through these topics to help you make the best choice for your eLearning, starting with an overview of what each one entails.
A web app is essentially a responsive website that has the look and feel of a native app but is still unique and comes with certain challenges. UX Magazine describes it as an app “that is hosted on the web and accessed from a browser on the mobile device.” Since it’s hosted online, there are resulting advantages and disadvantages to this option.
Starting with the advantages, using a web app is more affordable. Having fewer custom development requirements makes it easier to seamlessly skin the site with your corporate identity. This is particularly useful if you do not have a web developer at hand. Another financial advantage is that it generally works on a monthly fee instead of a user rate. Additionally, you can centralise your eLearning to one location. If you’re developing a native app, you’ll need to specifically design it for different devices, such as Apple or Android. By hosting your eLearning online, this doesn’t need to be a factor as students can access the course from any given device.
As far as disadvantages go, web apps aren’t as responsive to other dimensions. This could cause the visual side of your course to look somewhat disjointed. They aren’t typically designed with mobile devices in mind, so a student that studies from a tablet might find it unpleasant to work with. The technology is embedded and consequently isn’t subtly or properly designed for UX. It will also require a steady internet connection because web apps don’t come with offline capabilities.
Now that we’ve covered web apps, what can you expect from a native app?
The easiest way to understand a native app is to consider its name – it lives on your device. Users will download it from their app store and it will be stored entirely on the device. This means that it’s designed with mobile-friendliness as a priority. How does this impact its pros and cons?
One of the shining features of native apps is their offline capabilities. If data restrictions are a common issue for your students, this can make a world of a difference. They’ll be able to open the native app from their device and access the learning material without worrying about connectivity. As the reverse of the web app’s disadvantage, native apps also allow students to utilise their device’s hardware. They can easily use their cameras, GPS or NFC features if your eLearning calls for it. The app will likely enhance the mobile UX as well since the dimensions and design take ease of use into account.
On the other hand, native apps tend to be more expensive. This is mostly due to the fact that you’ll pay a user rate instead of a monthly fee. The native app may have better UX, but it comes at a premium. Another large drawback is that “a separate code base must be created and maintained for each individual platform.” Instead of centralising your students as a web app can, you’ll have to put in more effort and time to create a native app for different operating systems (Android, iOS and so forth).
When we weigh these two options up, we might wish that there was a combination of web and native apps – and there is.
Crossing over with progressive web apps
In basic terms, progressive web apps (PWAs) are web apps that function as though they were native apps. Richard and LePage explain that PWAs are “built and enhanced with modern APIs to deliver enhanced capabilities, reliability, and installability while reaching anyone, anywhere, on any device with a single codebase.” This means that you can virtually have the best of both worlds, combining the advantages of web and native apps while compensating for their disadvantages.
As an example, let’s say that you want to centralise your eLearning as you would with a web app but you also want to be able to use push notifications when new material is available. If you were choosing solely between web and native apps, you would have to choose one of these features – but not with a PWA. You’d be able to keep both of these elements as part of your eLearning package without having to compromise on quality or efficiency.
Students would be able to open the PWA in a standalone window instead of a browser tab straight from their home screen or taskbar. It has similar capabilities to a native app but the reach of a web app, meaning that you can develop a single app that reaches everyone without skimping on the UX. If you’re still uncertain about what a PWA could do for your eLearning, just remember its three pillars: capability, reliability and installability.
How do I decide?
There isn’t a single winner that is better than the others. They all have unique advantages and disadvantages which may or may not be dealbreakers for your specific course. Ultimately, it’ll come down to what your needs are. So, you’ll need to consider these factors and how they relate to your priorities:
- Data restrictions
- Centralised host versus developing OS-specific apps
- Needing the use of device hardware
You’ll also need to consider how many clicks it will take to get to the learning material. Ideally, students should be able to get to where they want to go in as few clicks as possible. This promotes the UX and ease of access.
We know that companies, students and education are never a one-size-fits-all package. With all of the technological advancements in recent years, the ability to customise learning has never been so far-reaching and necessary. We can use this to our advantage by finding the right fit for our subjective experiences and creating a climate where education is but a click away.
Montecuollo, M. (2014). Native or Web-Based? Selecting the Right Approach for Your Mobile App [online]. [accessed 23 May 2022].
Richard, S. and LePage, P. (2020). What are Progressive Web Apps? [online]. [accessed 24 May 2022].