Top Mobile Apps Adopted By US Universities

The launch of the iPhone a decade ago in combination with the app-store-based distribution model set in motion the conditions for mobile applications to become mainstream in an easy, user-friendly way. However, it was since even before this development that colleges and universities have seen both the potential, and the necessity, of adopting mobile applications to better serve their student populations. Our newest research affirms the growing pervasiveness of mobile technologies on US campuses.

For the first time, we are publishing data on the mobile apps that schools adopt at an institution-wide scale. To appear in this data set, the app must have some official or material connection to a university and be adopted or implemented in such way that it would be useful to a broad user base and contain content or functional capabilities that are relevant to that specific school’s needs (that is, not generic in nature). What we are measuring is the number of mobile apps adopted by institutions, not the number of downloads by individual users nor the number of downloads or popularity of consumer apps among college students.

Types of Mobile Apps

What we found is that over 700 institutions have implemented one or more mobile applications of this type. We clustered the types of apps into these 5 categories based on their primary purpose:

  • The “Campus App” –  a “one-stop-shop” for information, including information only accessible with a specific student login, typically designed for currently-enrolled students
  • Events/News/Alerts/Outreach apps that contain a calendar or content targeted at external audiences including local communities, sports fans, or for recruiting prospective students
  • Tour/Map/Transit apps that focus primarily on navigation around campus
  • Educational/Student Support apps that focus on serving some direct, unique, educational purpose (largely excluding LMS mobile apps) or student advising
  • Dining/Payment apps for displaying cafeteria menus and supporting mobile payment options specific to a given campus

The mobile applications adopted by each institution vary widely.  Smaller universities tend to implement a single, single-purpose app. Larger universities tend to implement several apps including a campus app that connects to and integrates with multiple other campus systems.

As you can see in the graphic below, the campus app is the category that has experienced the largest adoption in US higher education. Together with apps that support outreach to local communities and prospective students, these two categories encompass more than 75% of all mobile applications. It is worth noting that the mobile applications experiencing the most adoption are largely not focused on meeting purely academic needs, often containing multiple capabilities such as registration, student communities, social media updates, a phone directory, and event calendars. The majority of widely-adopted campus apps also have the ability for individual students to log in to display information relevant to that specific student. 

Notable Platforms

Focusing specifically on the campus app category, only a minority of schools self-publish their own app under their own institution’s vendor name even when using an app framework or codebase provided by a consultant, vendor, or open source community. The majority build on top of, or integrate with, one of several major mobile platforms that are branded as being provided by that vendor.  OOHLALA and Blackboard Mosaic capture almost half of these type of campus app implementations with DubLabs, Unifyed, and Modo Labs all tied for third-place.

Note: We have adjusted this graphic since the original post to include self-published apps. It is, again, important to be aware that self-published apps are more-often-than-not created by a specialized mobile application development shop or by one of the vendors mentioned above. Most institutions do not develop their own apps.

Other popular mobile platforms include Guidebook, which provides a platform that can be used to display relevant information to prospective students and YouVisit, a popular mobile platform for providing virtual tours of campus (including VR tours).

Other Findings

While performing this research, we also came across a number of other findings that relate to mobile strategy on campus.

Quality Matters

Apps that are rated the lowest in each app store are correlated with a poor first experience opening the app, generally caused by a technical glitch or a slow or inconsistent load time. The student expectation is that each app “just works.” Conversely, apps that are rated highly generally feature content that is kept up-to-date and features that are relevant to their needs.

Responsive Design Versus “M dot”

While there has historically been a convention of hosting mobile web content at m dot school dot edu (for example, m.psu.edu), this is a significantly less popular approach than using responsive CSS design on the institution’s regular home page. Most modern mobile phones can correctly render web sites in ways that were not possible in years past. Our recommendation is to design for the default browser on each mobile platform (Chrome for Android and Safari for iOS) and consider Firefox mobile.

Official Apps Versus Unofficial Ones

When searching each app store, it is actually somewhat difficult to distinguish a “real” university mobile app from an unofficial one. While most unofficial apps are written by enthusiastic students or alumni, many appear to be suspicious in nature and built on top of advertising platforms. Our recommendation is that universities should attempt to control their brands however possible to prevent confusion, or worse, while supporting sanctioned innovation.

App Proliferation

Many universities appear to have decentralized funding sources for mobile apps and lack a unified mobile strategy. Particularly among larger universities, this results in multiple official apps that lack consistency or defined purpose. Our recommendation is to differentiate apps based on audience (e.g.: internal vs external) rather than function.

VR (Virtual Reality) Mobile Apps

While many experts have suspected that Virtual Reality would take off in the classroom, VR’s largest impact in higher education appears to be to support virtual campus tours. Using this technology allows potential students to more-fully understand the physical campus experience without the expense of travel.

LMS Apps

Our latest LMS data set suggests that almost all universities are currently running a LMS that supports a corresponding, free mobile app. Unless a school went out of its way to actively promote the LMS mobile app as a core part of the student experience, we did not include it in this report. Generally, we did not find institutional adoption of apps that focused specifically on learning or learning content separately from the LMS app.

Dead Apps

During our research, we found quite a number of broken links to discontinued mobile apps. Blackboard’s recent decommission of Mobile Learn in favor of a pair of separate student and instructor-focused apps, for example, leaves a trail of broken links. Smaller mobile vendors or independent consultants that have ceased operations or gone out of business are also correlated with this condition.

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5th Annual LMS Data Update

The 2017 US LMS market share data referenced in this post is available for purchase.
The global LMS data set (Australia, Canada, & UK) continues to be available at no cost.

For the fifth year, we are pleased to share our annual market share analysis of LMSs used by higher education institutions in the US and in other areas around the globe. The numbers below quantify those institutions running an LMS (or LMSs) to deliver live course materials at a program, department, or institution-wide scale. Sales/demo environments, and LMSs used by a single instructor or to teach a single class, are excluded.

To briefly review our methodology, we utilize a combination of techniques to automatedly identify LMS implementations that are materially-connected to those higher education institutions officially recognized by the US and Australian Departments of Education, the Department of Employment and Social Development in Canada, and the Department for Education in the UK. We also use sources including social media, student newspapers, listservs, press releases, and other official communications to verify and validate our data. The results are then reviewed by a team of analysts familiar with the subject matter to identify and resolve any anomalies or inconsistencies.

Overview

Since Fall of 2016 we have observed some of the most massive shifts in LMS usage we’ve seen since this project began, driven primarily by factors including:

  • The increasing desire for more-pleasing student and instructor user experiences that more-closely match consumer-grade software and apps
  • The increasing popularity and convenience of reliable, vendor-managed LMSs
  • A trend towards hosting LMSs using cloud providers for reasons that include flexible scalability, predicable cost, business continuity, and the challenge of attracting and retaining relevant technical talent on staff
  • Forced upgrades and migrations such as those caused by the revised end-of-life of ANGEL (acquired by Blackboard in 2009) and the impending end-of-life of Pearson’s LearningStudio (formerly eCollege)

As universities switched LMSs over the past year, there has been a clear and increasing level of comfort and reliance on LMS vendors (and through these vendors, typically also a third-party cloud services provider such as Amazon Web Services or Rackspace) to host and maintain their learning platform infrastructure.  Even when an institution chooses to manage its own LMS, it is often still hosted on third-party cloud infrastructure. Almost no new LMS implementations are self-hosted on-premises (the exception here is mainly Moodle at smaller institutions).

It is also clear that institutions are moving with more deliberate intent away from legacy LMS architectures and older LMS versions towards the compelling, modern user experiences provided by Instructure’s Canvas LMS, D2L’s Brightspace Daylight user experience, and Blackboard’s Learn SaaS LMS with the Ultra user interface. Fewer institutions than ever are running outdated LMS software – likely because of dated user interfaces, frustrating glitches and incompatibilities with modern web browsers, and the risk of security flaws in older, unmaintained software.

LMS changes have been most-pronounced among larger schools (having more than 2000 students) in the US. Here we see the continued, significant growth of the Instructure Canvas LMS and the gradual rise of D2L’s Brightspace LMS. Moodle, Sakai, and Blackboard have each fallen slightly-to-moderately out of favor. Institutions of this size continue to responsibly migrate away from the legacy ANGEL and Pearson LearningStudio LMSs which are, or soon will be, no longer supported by their vendors.

When considering schools down to the smaller size of 500 students, we see that these trends still hold. Smaller-to-medium sized universities (between 500-2000 students) exhibit more diversity in their online learning platforms. Specifically, you will see in the figure below that when compared to the one above “Other LMSs” are used by a larger proportion of institutions. Smaller institutions are more likely than larger ones to utilize less-conventional LMSs and LMS-like solutions such as Absorb, Agilix Buzz, Edmodo, Epsilen, Focus, Google Classroom, Haiku, Learner Community, NEO LMS, Notebowl, OpenClass (to be retired in January 2018), School Loop, and Schoology. Smaller institutions are also more likely to use the LMS bundled with their SIS (such as Jenzabar’s eLearning, formerly eRacer, LMS) or with other campus software (such as Campus Cruiser’s Knosys). 

By the Numbers

Overall, the market share among the major LMS platforms continues to become more balanced. Though its share continues to decline, Blackboard still leads the US higher education LMS market with just under one-third of institutions and just over 40 percent when measured by student enrollments. Instructure has more than doubled its market share position, both by number of institutions and enrollments, over its next nearest commercial competitor, D2L. Moodle has entered a gradual decline, picking up fewer than 20 new institutions but losing around 50 since this time last year. Sakai continues an accelerating decline losing 20 percent of its installed-based year over year and picking up no new significant institutional deployments in the US. ANGEL has gone extinct, and we expect Pearson’s LearningStudio to experience the same fate by this time next year.

Global Highlights

While the US LMS marketplace is largely dominated by commercial LMSs, each region of the world has a different LMS footprint. The figure below shows percentages of each LMS used as a total of all LMSs used by country. Because the US has such a disproportionately high number of universities, small changes in other geographies can shift market share numbers significantly.

Overall, the LMSs used in these non-US regions have been stable recently, largely because they have been isolated from the churn caused by the discontinuance of legacy commercial LMSs that were rarely or never licensed outside of the US (e.g.: CourseInfo, Prometheus, ANGEL, eCollege/LearningStudio) coupled with a lack of viable local competition. The last major period of LMS churn outside of the US followed Blackboard’s acquisition of the Canadian LMS company, WebCT. With the incumbent LMS vendors being largely stable, we do not expect massive shifts in these regions in the near-term.

Highlights

ANGEL
Almost all institutions have successfully and responsibly chosen replacement LMSs for this solution which reached its end-of-life last October.

Blackboard Learn
Blackboard continues to push forward with improvements to its many deployment models. Since we started tracking deployments of Learn SaaS last Fall, Blackboard has slowly and steadily been adding to or converting its client base to this new model while reducing the number of self-hosted institutions. This should help the organization to gradually overcome the challenges posed by the many technology and version combinations that it currently supports.

D2L Brightspace
D2L Brightspace experienced a bump in growth this year driven mainly by conversions from Pearson LearningStudio and continues to experience healthy, gradual growth. The organization has also had much success with its continuous delivery deployment model which keeps the majority of its customer base on a consistent, supportable version. Brightspace also continues to be the most popular commercial LMS among higher education institutions in Canada, where its parent company is headquartered.

Instructure Canvas
Instructure Canvas continues to experience consistent, rapid uptake by institutions migrating away from all other major LMSs and even by some schools that previously did not have a LMS. Last year, Canvas proved capable of breaking into each of the global regions that we track. This year, it continues to expand its presence, most notably in the UK.

Moodle
Despite recent improvements, particularly in the area of user experience, Moodle does not seem to have gained any significant, new traction. A portion of the decrease in the number of Moodle institutions was caused by smaller institutions that have either merged or ceased operations. Moodle continues to have a much larger footprint, by percentage of total institutions, outside of the US.

Pearson
Pearson has chosen to exit the LMS market by discontinuing its LearningStudio and OpenClass LMS products effective at the beginning of 2018. A much larger proportion of Pearson’s LMS customers were large, multi-campus, for-profit institutions that have ceased, or decreased the footprint of, their operations. (Most of these institutions were accredited by ACICS which has also undergone significant challenges recently).

Sakai
Sakai is experiencing consistent yearly declines in every region that we are tracking globally. These declines come despite recent functional and technical improvements. At least some migrations away from Sakai appear to have been driven by the reported ongoing challenges and uncertainty in the Sakai vendor/partner community.

Other
No single “Other” LMS has yet experienced the significant traction that Instructure began to have with Canvas in 2012/2013 though there are several mentioned above that have smaller footholds. The only micro-trends that we have begun to detect are (1) a greater exploration of LMSs that operate more like learning communities than content delivery systems and (2) early signs that medical and business schools in particular, after a period of LMS consolidation, are again starting to explore LMSs that are separate from the core institutional LMS for specific pedagogical or marketing/branding reasons.

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