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The Mobile LMS Race: Responsive Design vs. Apps


We’ve all been there — pan left, right, scroll down, left, zoom, right, down, too far, ugggh — reading a full size webpage on our phones is painful. If users are panning to use the LMS, you can guarantee they will only use it as a last resort.  For extended enterprise LMS initiatives where your users are mainly voluntary users, this is not an option.

Over the last few months, Talented Learning has reviewed about 25 LMS solutions and we are tracking the mobile capabilities (and much more) of each solution.  If you have been shopping for a LMS lately,  you’ve noticed that every vendor says they are a mobile LMS and you can use on any device.

While this may be technically true, if you dig deeper, you will frequently uncover these limitations:

  • You can access the LMS from any device browser, you just have pan or have eagle eyesight to read anything
  • Learners can access from a mobile device but not administrators
  • You can launch mobile and manage mobile content, but the LMS interface is still the scrolling and panning version
  • Tablets but not smartphones are supported and the tablet version is the same as the desktop
  • Mobile users are detected and served up a limited functionality user interface that provides bare bones capability

From our perspective,  a LMS is truly mobile only when all functionality is available to all types of users.  We’ve found LMS solutions with total mobile, no mobile and everywhere in-between.

All LMS vendors want to be total mobile.  It’s just easier said than done.  If a vendor started making their product before smartphones and tablets they have to double back and now mobilize.  Unfortunately, you just can’t go back and rewrite your entire application easily or cheaply even though that is the right answer, so you have to go piece by piece.  As one LMS vendor put it,

“The worst time to “mobilize” is at the end of a project, by then it’s far too late, or you’re forced to rethink lots of decisions you’ve made for the project already.”

Unfortunately for many older LMS vendors, they have no choice, and they are compelled to invest in mobile redesign and this opens up opportunity for newer, cloud-based, total mobile LMS competitors to differentiate.

We found two main strategies, that are not mutually exclusive, to becoming 100% mobile for all types of LMS users including learners, managers, instructors and administrators.  They are the responsive design and app approaches.

Responsive Design

Cloud LMS providers think mobile first when developing and everything is mobile enabled from day one.  One vendor told me,

“Mobile learning has been accessible from any mobile device since our inception. It is not a special offering for us, just part of the whole enchilada.”

Responsive design is the most popular way LMS vendors are providing a full mobile experience.  What is responsive design?  Responsive design means that the LMS “senses” and automatically adjusts the display to the individual user’s device and browser window size.

Responsive design is popular because it works with any device, all platforms thus eliminating the need to test everything on many devices.  If you want to see responsive design in action, adjust the size of your browser window while viewing this blog post –our theme if fully responsive.

Responsive design doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  A common approach with many vendors is to make the end user interface responsive and build out apps for specific user groups and purposes as described below.


Web or Native Apps

While responsive design focuses on presenting the same functionality and content dynamically sized, apps take it to the next level by providing enhancements or conveniences to existing functionality.

There are two main types of apps — generic “web” apps that will work on any smart device browser (without downloads) and platform specific “native” downloadable apps for Android, Apple, Windows and Blackberry.

Native apps allow you to take advantage of touch and swiping technology as well as inherent device capabilities like location awareness, phone, camera and texting.  With native apps, LMS providers need to design, develop, test and maintain for each individual platform or pick a single platform.   The former is expensive, the latter limiting.

We found a wide range of mobile LMS app capabilities including:


  • Search and access content
  • Switch devices (smartphone to tablet to desktop) while taking content and bookmarking and progress is tracked
  • Search and browse social learning content, people and discussions for just in time performance support
  • Access content of any type including eLearning, virtual classrooms, Word docs, PDFs, video, audio and webinars
  • Access to profile and transcripts
  • Receive and send notifications, registration approvals, private messages and other actionable requests
  • Download content to device for offline consumption and sync back results to the LMS*
  • Exchange contact info with other students and learners by tapping phones with same app*
  • Augmented reality of using apps (via phone, Google Glass, tablet) to recognize products or equipment and launching performance support, social or formal learning to assist the user*


  • On-the-job training checklists
  • Dashboards, tools, reporting to streamline mundane tasks and review team progress
  • Customized alerts and notifications


  • Mobile is integrated in the instructor-led training (ILT) process by having classroom polls, social, surveys. evaluations delivered during class –with integrated reporting for instructors*
  • Manually mark attendance or even have the app recognize/log users entering and leaving the classroom*


Remarkably, the poor administrator is pretty much left out in the cold with apps.  Other than the functions listed above for managers and instructors, we didn’t find much.  I guess admins need the big screen or responsive design or this is an opportunity for differentiation.

*Usually requires native apps vs. web apps


What Questions Should I Ask Mobile LMS Vendors?

Do you want to know where your current vendor stands on mobile?  Or want to compare potential mobile LMS vendors?  Here is a list of questions to ask that will help you compare apples to apples:

  • What are your current mobile capabilities?
  • Do you have responsive design for all user groups?  What users groups?
  • Can you access the LMS and all functions without panning?
  • Are there functions I can’t access?
  • Do you have any apps?  If so, what?  For what groups?
  • Are they native or web apps?  If native, what platforms are supported?
  • What mobile functionality is on your product roadmap?


There are two concurrent races to fully mobilize the LMS.  The race to responsive design for all users and the race to develop learning apps for different types of users and different uses.

Responsive design eliminates the hassle of using a LMS from any mobile device and is the easiest way to service a global extended enterprise audience.  Apps can replicate and extend the standard  LMS capabilities and provide opportunities for innovation and differentiation, but require additional overhead, cost and maintaince for vendors.

Both approaches are here to stay.  In the ideal world, all LMS solutions will be fully responsive for all users and have a catalog of apps to extend the application and further leverage the power of mobile devices.

No one LMS mobile strategy is right or wrong, but rather depends on a your target audience and how they need or want to access training and performance support.

Thanks for reading!

Image credit –Stuart Miles,


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John Leh
About John Leh (98 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. John is an LMS selection consultant and eLearning industry blogger focused on helping organizations plan and implement technology strategies that support extended enterprise learning. John has almost 20 years of experience in the LMS industry, having served as a trusted adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $50 million. John helps organizations define their business case, identify requirements, short list vendors, write and manage the RFP and negotiate a great deal. You can connect with John on Twitter (@JohnLeh) or LinkedIn.

1 Comment on The Mobile LMS Race: Responsive Design vs. Apps

  1. I agree with you that both approaches are here to stay and it depends on your target audience i.e. how they need or want to access training.

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