59. What makes a bad app in education? #lifewidelearning16 @bhwilkoff
— Zac Chase (@MrChase) February 28, 2016
I am an app hoarder.
Even before the App Store launched in 2008, I was jailbreaking my iPod Touch and finding apps to put on it. As it became easier to do, I would install any app that piqued my interest, even if only for a minute. I would install things because they were temporarily free. I would install others because I thought they might be useful in the future, even if I didn’t currently have a use for them. In all, I have downloaded thousands of apps and I currently have around 200 on my phone (all carefully organized into a single page on the home screen).
The vast majority of these few thousand Apps that I have installed have one thing in common, though: they are bad.
Now, I am not an App snob or someone who picks things apart unnecessarily. These Apps are all bad in their own special ways. They tend to fall into specific “bad” categories, and I would like to enumerate those here. Because I believe that anything can be an educational app, I am going to leave these categories rather broad. I will call out where I think these “bad habits” are particularly egregious for educational settings, but for the most part these will apply any app. Also, while I primarly have experience in using iOS Apps, many of these categories can be found in the Google Play store as well.
Without further ado, here are the categories of Bad Apps:
- Single Use Apps
- Bloated Apps
- Ad-supported or In-App Currency Apps
- Web-site wrapper apps
- Languishing Apps
- Content/Service-Unaware Apps
- Service-Dependent Apps
- Missing Business Model Apps
- Data-mining Apps
- Facebook Apps
Single Use Apps
There are so many examples of great apps that only do one thing. The problem, though, is that they are so singular in their focus that their one function gets consumed by another app or within the OS itself that it loses relevance. Apps like Camera+ or Instapaper were severely hampered by their intense focus on features that were later made (more) obsolete by updates to the stock Camera app and the Reading List in Safari. In education, these apps tend to have a specific feature that sets them apart initially. For example, Penultimate was a perfect app for taking notes and sharing quick sketches. It initially had a huge educational following, but when Paper by 53 came out, it was all but forgotten because of the huge amount of customization and sharing options available. This happens all of the time for single use apps, and can be avoided by looking for apps that have a robust feature set that have shown willingness to grow into new use cases over time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are apps that try to pack too many features in. Although a lot of people still like Google+, this is the perfect example of how a bloated app made for a Bad App. When it tried to pack Hangouts, Hangouts on Air, Photos, Communities, Collections, and Streams all in a single app, it made for a terrible experience. I still used this app but I didn’t enjoy opening it or trying to figure out where the new features were hidden. This happens in education-focused apps all too often as well. They start with a core experience (i.e., social learning) and then they continue to bolt other features on top of it (i.e., gradebooks, content purchasing, enterprise integrations, parent accounts, etc.), often to the detriment of all users. Knowing the core of your app matters.
Ad-Supported or In-App Currency Apps
There are many apps that are technically “free”, but instead use advertisements to ensure profitability. This makes for one of the single worst App experiences because there is no way of know what ads are going to show up on the screen or where/when they will occur. If I notice advertising within an app, I will delete it immediately and try to find a competitor to purchase the app from so that I can give money directly to the developer rather than having the intermediary of advertisers. This goes double for any app that chooses to use an “In-App currency” that you have to purchase in order to engage in purchases or experiences. This is most prevalent in games, but it sneaks into many of the educational apps that have grade-level content for purchase. These kinds of pseudo-subscriptions are terrible for educators, but they are just as bad for consumers. We should pay for the apps we use, leveraging them to their fullest extent. We should not continually have to purchase credits just to maintain the services we need in classrooms or outside of it.
Web-site Wrapper Apps
Anyone that wraps a website inside of a native app is doing a great disservice to both those using websites and mobile applications. They are not getting the full benefits of a mobile website because the display engine for browsers inside of apps is inferior to those in mobile Safari (or Chrome on Android) and many of the features of file systems within apps (uploading files/images) don’t exist in “Wrapper Apps”. Many education-focused startups tend to start making apps in this regard because it is much easier to build a web app and deploy it everywhere than to build a native app for each platform. This leads to a far inferior experience.
There are many apps that start off with a clear purpose and are updated regularly in the face of new version of the OS, but are abandoned over time and never meet their full potential. The best way to tell if an app is Bad in this way is to see if the interface has been updated with a modern look (Flat design in iOS and Material Design in Android). If it hasn’t then it means that the developers are no longer seriously looking at this app and new features are unlikely to make their mark. While these apps are still usable, they become more and more painful to put into your workflow because you are unsure if the service is going to continue. Zite is the classic example of this type of app. For a very long time, Zite was the best way to follow news and gather information on a topic. It was far better than Flipboard in many respects, but it was purchased and then abandoned shortly thereafter. This is the fate of many educational apps, as many startups are testing to see if there is a market for their work or not. Ask3 is an example of how this played out directly in the Education space.
Content/Service Unaware Apps
There are many companies that act as if their app is the only one on the phone and that their services are the only ones that exist. In many cases, this manifests itself as apps that do not allow you to connect Google Drive or Dropbox for accessing/importing files. In other cases, this means that you can’t export videos, pictures, or other creations made within the app to an external service or another app. This creates a walled garden within the app that makes it incredibly unlikely to build AppSmashes or other workflows for getting complex tasks done. In education, this rears its ugly head when a company is really looking for ways to create vendor lock-in where it doesn’t need to exist. An example of this is in the Swivl Capture app for recording classroom practice. It should allow you to export videos to your Camera Roll, but it doesn’t. This is core function of every other video capture app in the App Store, but alas, Swivl is unaware that this should be a default option because it wants you to upload only to its service.
On the other side of this spectrum are apps that are dependent upon other services for their core functionality. The most basic form of this is an app that requires you to register with Twitter, Facebook, or a Google Account. By requiring you to be a member of another service, the app is limiting their user base as well as ensuring that those folks who are concerned about privacy become wary of signing up. Another service dependency comes in the form of syncing services. If you are uninterested in using iCloud or another similar syncing service then there are huge amounts of apps that you will not be able to take advantage of. From notes/files syncing to address books, if you do not buy in to the Cloud-based service model, these apps are hamstrung. In education, this tends to look like an over-reliance on outside services for core functions (i.e., Crocodoc for embedding, which is no longer available).
Missing Business Model Apps
There are some apps that have made it clear that they are not interested in making any money, and in education that can seem like a boon. But, I am extremely wary of any app that is giving away huge amounts of online storage or functionality without charging anything. If the massive graveyard of EdTech apps is any indication, there are many folks who have foregone a business model who have later regretted it. While this is a sin akin to the ad-supported apps, it is perhaps even worse. To release an app that gains traction among users (and schools/students/teachers) just to realize later that you have run out of money because you never had a business model betrays the trust of those users. It also makes them less likely to try new things or to continue to see technology as a sustainable solution. If you must charge for your app to stay in business, do so.
With nearly every app that I install I get alerted to additional permissions that are required in order to use the app. Most often, it is the location services that I have to turn on so that the app can know where I am in the world at all times. For an app like Google Maps this makes sense. For an app that I am simply editing documents, it does not. Any time that an app asks for more permissions than it really needs, it erodes the trust I have in the app and the company that makes it. Other types of data mining that seem to creep into Educational apps are ones that are constantly asking you to rate things or evaluate things within the app. This could be evaluation of content or simply +1’ing items to improve search results. When the app makes you a data point in the broader system, your experience for actual learning or using the app is significantly diminished.
I do not enjoy Facebook. That much is not a secret, but I find their apps to be pretty much the worst apps I have on my phone. I include Facebook, Messenger, Paper and Moments in this list of terrible apps. If you look at the other categories of Bad Apps from this list, you will notice that each and every one is found within these apps. Moments and Messenger are single use apps that make you switch back and forth between the main Facebook app multiple times to get a full experience. Facebook is a bloated app of the worst variety, mixing video, long form posts, pictures, and many other functions into an un-unified mess. Facebook is terribly ad-supported and encourages many of its games to use in-app currency instead of real money. Many of the links that you tap on are simply wrapping a browser into the app without giving the full functionality of being able to share the link outside of Facebook. Paper has been languishing since it was first released and hasn’t been updated since March 11, 2015. The main app is fully unaware that Twitter or Youtube exist, instead consuming everything into its own awful interface. Each app is also overly dependent upon your Facebook account for everything you do within it, mining each like and view as something to better help understand your interests and serve up ads accordingly. The only category that might not fit for Facebook is the “Missing Business Model”, but I might change that to be a Missing Ethics Model instead. They are clearly making a lot of money off of their advertising, but I am unconvinced that they are doing it in an ethical way, as all of the content you share with Facebook is owned by them and they are making huge sums of money off of Freebooted content. The worst part for me, though, is that because Facebook is so popular and influential, many EdTech app makers are trying to follow suit. They are trying to create the same kind of sticky ecosystem that Facebook has created and I believe it will lead to a much worse experience for all learners.
With all of that said, I don’t want to make the case that there are no good apps out there, either in education or in the consumer market. So, in an effort to call attention to those folks who are doing an amazing job of avoiding the pitfalls above, here are some of my current favorites:
- Overcast – This is the single best podcasting app to ever exist. It is both simple and robust. It makes me happy whenever I use it.
- Tweetbot – This is the Twitter client that gets nearly everything right. It is beautiful and it lets me focus on exactly what I want to learn and know more about.
- Waze – Although it isn’t as robust as Google Maps, its purity of purpose for getting me where I want to go is second to none. The fact that it knows when I want to go home and starts routing me without me touching the screen is also lovely.
- Medium – While I don’t love all of the things that are written on this platform, I find that the reading experience here is better than anywhere else.
- Product Hunt – I check this app exactly once a day and I am never disappointed with what I find. I feel so wonderfully knowledgable about new trends in technology whenever I see what is being posted and discussed within this robust community.
- Voice Dream – This app reads me PDF’s, but it lets me talk to every other app that can open PDF’s too. It is hugely customizable and makes my life easier.
- Wirecast Go – This app is the holy grail of video streaming and I use it as often as I can. The on screen information while you are streaming makes going live really easy.
- Protube – This is the app that Google should have built for Youtube. It is beautiful and it lets me speed up videos on mobile which is essential for me.
- Drafts – I find myself needing to jot things down and quickly add ideas. This is by far the quickest and most flexible way to do it.
- RecApp – The ability to start an audio recording from the notification center is amazing. I use it all of the time to quickly capture ideas out loud. Truly wonderful.
I hope you can see a number of reasons why these apps have made it into heavy rotation on my primary learning device, my phone. I am wondering where your top 10 apps would fall. Do they exhibit the “Bad Habits” identified here or are they able to avoid them and find their rightful place among those that will last in your home screen?
Leave a comment and let me know.