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Apps: An Embarrassment of Riches?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Millions of powerful, readily accessible, and above all, user- accepted, apps offer instructors and faculty developers some very interesting options to enable learning. Apps certainly compete with older, more established software for the attention of both students and instructors. For many, the mere presence of apps within a course serves to make the course more novel and more friendly. Whether the apps are merely dazzling props, or highly effective learning tools, will depend on wise implementation, and not a little strategic thinking.


The posting below looks at some factors to consider in implementing apps for various teaching and learning uses. It is by Michael L. Rodgers,
Southeast Missouri State University and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 4, May, 2016. It is #78 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Postdoc Now, Think Later


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Apps: An Embarrassment of Riches?


The speaker at a faculty development brown-bag lunch event demonstrated how she used several smart phone apps in her classroom. Afterwards, two mid-career colleagues took advantage of the fine Spring day to walk back to their department:

Colleague #1: Those apps were impressive. I had no idea that you could make a smart phone do such things. And there are so many!

Colleague #2: I remember a conversation with the IT Director seven years ago. He was trying to build out the campus wireless infrastructure, and he had to decide whether to install campus-wide Wi-Fi for laptops, or 3G for cell
phones. His challenge was
to anticipate how students
would use universal
wireless access.

Colleague #1: How so?

Colleague #2: He was interested in student-selected data: Do students want a quick answer to a simple question, or will they use wireless access to do extended research and data manipulation?

Colleague #1: My
students may have
answered his question.
A few weeks ago, my students were in the hallway, waiting for me to open the classroom. Every student was looking intently at a smart phone: totally focused! No conversation, no paper, no blank stares at the ceiling. Not one looked up as I walked by. Truly amazing! Of course, all that ended just as soon as they entered the class- room. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t “extended research and data manipulation”! 

Colleague #2: Yeah, my students love their phones, too. Maybe that’s justification enough for using apps in my teaching ....

Colleague #1: Well, the apps we just saw were amazing, but here’s my problem: every app requires
me to figure out what it can do, and how—or even whether—it can interact with other apps. Also, I don’t have the time to keep up to date with new apps as they become available.

Millions of Apps

One website1 recently reported numbers of apps available in the major app stores: the total came to almost three million for all categories. Even if games and other categories not focused on education or productivity are ignored, it is clear that there are vast numbers of apps that extend what can be done with a smart phone well beyond making calls and taking selfies. Functionality is an obvious criterion for selecting an app for use in a course, but there are other, more subtle criteria.

For example, an app must be available on enough platforms to ensure its value to instruction. An app’s functionality may change in response to changes in the phones’ hardware and software, requiring a decision about the version of the app to use. An app must also be relatively straightforward to use, both for the instructor and the student, lest too much course time be spent in student training. Money also matters: while some apps are born of altruistic motives—for example, the product of grants or student projects— many apps are authored on a straightforward for-profit basis, both by companies and entrepreneurs, to be purchased for each phone that uses them. Still others follow a “freemium” model, in which the free app offers some basic functionality, but additional features may be purchased by way of an upgrade or an in-app purchase.

Apps and the Instructor

Many instructors’ e-mail inboxes are now crowded with solicitations, reviews, and live demonstrations for apps and other software tools to facilitate teaching and learning. Some are interesting, others are not. But collectively they raise a strategic dilemma. Should the instructor spend precious course development time trying out new stand-alone apps and tools in courses, or should the instructor maximize his or her expertise with the software already available, even if that software is not as effective as a phone app to reach into students’ online living spaces? The answer is complex, and highly dependent on a multitude of technical, pedagogical, and personal factors.

Apps tend to do one (or a few) things well. The limitation in functionality offers a great advantage, in that an app can be quickly and easily deployed to support a specific activity or assignment. For example, several apps2 predict a patient’s percentage of enhanced risk for heart disease, based on personal data likely to be monitored by a physician. Placing such an app in, say, a Health Promotion course, would allow students to quickly and easily analyze authentic data using a tool that would continue to be available outside of class and after the course ends. The tendency of individual apps to offer solutions to a limited range of well-defined problems lends itself to assignments in which students identify, with justification, the best app to address a specific problem.

Yet, the advantages come with a cost: most apps’ lack of inherent flexibility also limits innovative uses, and restricts customized app implementation assignments to courses that include coding. Additionally, stand-alone apps tend to lack some of the interoperability that instructors have come to expect in comprehensive tools like Microsoft® Office and learning management systems (LMS), such as Moodle. For example, Ed Puzzle3 is a very fine app that allows the instructor to embed questions, commentary, and opportunities for student feedback into online videos. Students get the instructor’s (content-based) presence at precisely the point in the video where that presence is most germane. The videos can become course assignments, in which student responses are tracked. Assignments can be embedded in an LMS,4 but the interoperability is quite limited: Ed Puzzle maintains a separate recordkeeping system for the assignments that is not easily integrated into the LMS; the LMS merely serves as a display for links out of the LMS to Ed Puzzle.

An instructor’s decision to rely primarily on apps or on institutional software may extend beyond the technology itself. For tenure and promotion decisions, more weight may be given to either one of the two approaches, irrespective of the realized improvements to teaching and learning. At my institution, a good analogy is found in the way we treat course development: we give much more credit for developing a new course than we give for revising an existing course, even if the two activities are similarly innovative, and require similar time and effort. The work required to find and employ apps from an immense inventory may be equivalent to the effort required to build similar capabilities within institutional software, but the reward system may value them quite differently.

Apps and the Teaching and Learning Center

Teaching and Learning Centers have for many years included technology in their lists of faculty development offerings. LMS training, video development, classroom implementations (such as student response systems), and online course design are but a few common workshop offerings. It is therefore reasonable to expect Centers to face decisions about apps in faculty development. Does an app-centric approach to technology produce better results in terms of student outcomes and development of faculty technology expertise? Or should the focus be on in-depth training in campus-wide software?

For Centers serving very diverse faculty needs, and for those possessing adequate resources to address a long and growing list of tech-related needs, a balanced approach will likely work best. But smaller Centers that lack abundant resources may have to place a thoughtful bet on one of the two approaches. If a Center’s strategic planners believe that a finite faculty development experience can meet the needs
of an instructor for a long (multi- year) period of time, then it seems reasonable that careful coverage of
a few robust tools that have a high degree of staying power, will be most profitable. Such tools offering stable, predictable, and systematic course development tend to feature proven products, yet still promise potential outlets for innovation (for example, repurposing a tool within an LMS to an unexpected use). On the other hand, if the technology is perceived to be in a transitional phase, or
the instructors who would employ technology in courses are seen to
be in the midst of transformational change in their thinking about teaching, faculty development featuring a variety of more-or-less stand- alone apps might make more sense. Center staff can use their special knowledge of student expectations and practices, along with comprehensive knowledge of the full catalog of available apps to help faculty find and use collections of apps that can, together, address needs within the course. In that case, courses would benefit from maximum flexibility, provide students with opportunities to experience the course on the “cutting edge” of technology, and reward instructors who find excitement in discovering new and innovative tools.

Apps in Today’s World

Millions of powerful, readily accessible, and above all, user- accepted, apps offer instructors and faculty developers some very interesting options to enable learning. Apps certainly compete with older, more established software for the attention of both students and instructors. For many, the mere presence of apps within a course serves to make the course more novel and more friendly. Whether the apps are merely dazzling props, or highly effective learning tools, will depend on wise implementation, and not a little strategic thinking.


1. See “Number of apps available in leading app stores as of July 2015” at http://www apps-available-in-leading-app-stores

2. See, for example, “Heart Disease Risk Calculator” at diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/ heart-disease-risk/itt-20084942


4. See “Embed an assignment into LMS, Blog or Website” at https://edpuzzle.zendesk .com/hc/en-us/articles/206100351-Embed-an- assignment-into-LMS-Blog-or-Website-