Creating a mobile learning app–what we learned, what’s left to learn


Today the JIBC’s first mobile learning iOS app got the Apple App store blessing and is now available for downloading.  The app is a multimedia glossary for Emergency Managers (more info that kind of training here and here ).You can grab it via this page (it’s FREE) if you are interested. The iPad version is a couple days away.

We used this project as a way of gently introducing ourselves to the world of mobile learning, having recognized that for our students–who need just-in-time information and tools while working in the field–it really couldn’t ignored.  We called this project a ‘proof of concept’ to give ourselves the space to fail or succeed, and we learned a few things along the way.

There are a lot of similarities in the instructional design/course design process and in the mobile learning iOS app design process, but there were also some important differences.  Here are some of the things we learned and the steps we took.  We in this case are 2 fabulous Emergency Management Division (EMD) JIBC staff:  Darren Blackburn and Jerome Rodriguez, with a bit of myself in the development phase, and a TELT staff Dennis Yip and Tech Services staff Alex Popov in the Apple Store phase.

Step 1:  map out the concept, purpose, audience and educational value

When we started this project a year and a half ago (yes, more on that later!) we began with both a problem to be solved and an opportunity.  The Emergency Management Division at the JIBC had an Innukshuk funded project with a deliverable of providing an ICS  text glossary. It made sense that this kind of information be available on a smartphone (which most EM people have) and be available for access without an internet connection (standalone) .  The deliverable had to be an OER, so the app had to be free.  The scope was small, manageable, and since apps technically are small pieces of software that do one thing really well, this seemed like the perfect marriage.

Step 2:  Identify the App developer (this should technically come later)

The next step was to find an app developer, since we didn’t have in-house resources with the time to take this project on.  We found one who was willing to learn with us, and that was really key in this project.  He worked with us on storyboarding our idea, but storyboarding wasn’t as big a deal as it would be for a multimedia or a video production project, since essentially a glossary is a type of storyboard.

Step 3:  Identify the platform for the app (should really be a decision in Step 1 since it also might determine who will be your developer)

When we started this project 18+ months ago, Android apps weren’t really where they are now, and Blackberry app developers weren’t very visible.  The iPad 1.0 was shiny and new and we really saw tablets being part of this app’s future.  So that’s how we made this decision.

Step 4:  Gather resources/storyboarding

The developer coached us through this in Step 2, but a good way of communicating what you want to do to a developer is to find a similar app.  So we poked around a lot of apps, and you realize quickly that there is a pattern to app design this is a bit like an instructional design template.  Glossaries look a certain way and have certain functions, so it was pretty easy.  At this stage the developer wanted to see what content we were going to put into it, so we gathered all that–graphics, text, and eventually video.

Step 5:  Work with developer on format, design, and content decisions

This is where there was some back and forth, not unlike course development work, with the developer.  The EMD folks on this project had it all ready to go already, so this step didn’t take very long.

Step 6:  Identify logo/branding, identify name, keywords, identify terms of use, identify business model

This is where it gets tricky, because if it hasn’t already been established at your institution, you have to run around and consult with the right people to make sure your app represents the institution’s existing branding.   Then of course you have to make sure you’ve covered off any institutional legalese.  Name and keywords are tricky because you only have so many characters, and they have to be meaningful to a broader audience (and still represent the institution).  If you are charging for your app, you might have to get into discussions about the business model, sustainability, etc.  So this step is really where the can of worms gets opened potentially.

Step 7:  Get it in to the App store

So you might be surprised to learn that all of the above took about 10 days. So why did it take a year and a half to get it in the App store?

Well, you can’t really just have your app developer submit it for you, because ultimately the institution has to hold, maintain, and sustain the app, especially if you are taking money for your app. Submitting it under a developer ID doesn’t really make the app ‘yours’ in a variety of subtle ways.  So even though we would have loved the developer to submit it and do all the hard stuff for us, he wisely recommended that we needed to get our own developer account and submit it that way.

The signup for the developer account was a bit confusing. First I signed up for what I thought was a developers account but it really wasn’t because I had to do the second part where you really sign up and pay your 99$.  Apple had to verify that the JIBC was a legit organization and that I (as the individual named to the account) was legit and had authority to do what I was doing.  This took a few weeks, and somebody (to this day I have no idea who) answered a call and said yes.  Then we were in, but as a non-techy (remember, we approached this project as instructional designers), I had no idea what to do!  So at this stage you need to give the info to your developer to wrap everything up, or find somebody in your institution who can finish it all off.  I sat on this for a long time, until finally Dennis and Alex took care of the details.

Step 7a: The details

Dennis and Alex had to do some Apple verification steps, which picked up some coding/design issues that  had to be resolved to make it easier for the JIBC to update and ‘own’ the app.  So this was a really important step.  Once they submitted it was about a 2-3 week wait to see it in the store.

Final thoughts

Creating this app was surprisingly simple, until Step 6.  Our developer was fast, great to work with, and willing to work in our budget.  Apple’s distribution process was a bit of a rub with me and felt a bit anti-web. At the time it was also surprisingly anti-mobile from an elearning perspective.  For example, I wanted to see a non-itunes integrated ‘store’ where students can grab the apps, documents, books, videos, audio, whatever associated with that institution (is this what the new itunesU is promising?).  It really needed to be simpler and quicker. I also felt a little bit like I felt in early HTML days, where creating a web page was such a big deal.  I really don’t understand why there isn’t a program where you can drag and drop content into a template (eg. glossary), add features, publish, voila, for app development.  Where is the WordPress for creating standalone apps?

Next Steps

We are well into our second development which involves scrapping an online course and redoing it entirely as a mobile learning app (with no intention of continuing to offer the online course.  More on this later…


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