Any successful business leader knows that you should never stop learning. Whether you’re an aspiring Richard Branson, Bill Gates, or even Oprah Winfrey, then not only will you be engaged in lifelong learning, but you’ll want to make sure your employees have the chance to further their education through continuous training and workplace courses.

But just as studying in the classroom is being replaced by e-learning, desktop learning is quickly shifting towards mobile. People increasingly want to take advantage of their previously unproductive hours spent commuting or on the road to earn credits, finish training modules, and gain certifications. This is equally true whether you’re studying through your company or on your own initiative. The end result is the rise of the mobile learning management system (LMS).

A recent Software Advice survey highlights this mobile learning trend, with almost half of the respondents saying they would be “more likely” to use an LMS with smartphone or tablet access. The stats on smartphone adoption are also extremely high, with Pew Research stating that, as of 2015, 64 percent of American adults own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35 percent in 2011.

Mobile apps vs responsive design

While mobile learning may be key these days, the big debate centers around what form this should take: a mobile app or a responsively designed website that you access from the browser on your phone. If you’re not familiar with responsive design, this is where your website adapts according to the size of screen you are using, providing different user experiences for each.

“This new, mobile learner has different needs from the institutions that are providing the learning materials,” says Steve Miller, account executive and digital marketer at web design agency Brolik. “Although courses are now frequently available online, they now also need to be formatted to retain usability on the smaller screens of cellphones and tablets without making the learner have to squint or constantly zoom in to participate in a meaningful way. That leaves two major options for content creators when it comes to delivery: mobile apps available through an app store or a responsive website that will adjust to the screen size.”

John Leh, CEO and lead analyst at Talented Learning, explained this trend in on our GetRank research report HR Trends in the Cloud: “The vast majority of LMS products born in the last three to five years are fully mobile responsive vs. app based. A responsive LMS ‘senses’ the user device and automatically optimizes the text, graphics and menus to display perfectly without zooming, scrolling or downloads. With a responsive strategy a vendor can develop one LMS that can be used on all devices globally.”

Do we really need an app for that?

The good news for small businesses is that you don’t actually need an app to truly engage your learners. The view of the mobile app as the be all and end all is being challenged, especially given the prohibitive costs involved for a small business in building and maintenance. “The downfall of mobile apps is the cost to have them built and maintained on all of the major platforms (iOS, Andriod, Windows Phone) and screen sizes (phone and tablet),” explains Miller. “The cost and official application process to have an app listed in the app stores can be overwhelming for a smaller company.”

Lewis Dunn, marketing executive at Webanywhere, believes that apps are not the way to go for small businesses, as development is expensive and specialist, and the app becomes outdated the second it launches. “Apps act as a cumbersome middleman, attempting to streamline a system that’s now becoming the standard,” says Dunn. “The web is adapting to mobile – more than 60 percent of Google searches come from mobile now, and the “Google App” is merely a window to the browser. It’s time to stop pretending apps for websites are anything other than portals. Ditch the app, support your site’s responsive view and build interactive content in HTML5. It’s time we realized “We don’t need an app for that”.”

Dunn is instead much more in favor of responsive sites, citing the fact that they can be more easily edited, adapted and redesigned without needing to rely on app development resources. “If a site is responsive it’s compatible with every device, can be accessed from mobile and desktop with the same data resting in the back end and there’s no need to sync between systems,” he explains.

“Responsive websites are easier to maintain as you only have to write the web app once and it will render on all devices,” adds Sean Gilligan, Webanywhere’s managing director.

Lack of engagement

The key aspect of mobile app vs responsive web design is which method employees will use on a daily basis. According to research from Nielsen, the number of apps used is staying the same, and more than 70% of the total usage is coming from the top 200 apps. This suggests that not only would it be tough task to get your employees to make your app a permanent fixture on their phones, but you may be also be alienating some of your audience with the app-only approach.

“By not having LMS provisions (such as courses/materials) on the responsive site and only on an app, the provider is not capturing their entire audience (desktop/laptop users),” says Owain Powell, digital marketing manager at Decibel Digital. “If an LMS has been applied intelligently, there is no urgency to subsidise the responsive site with a mobile app.”

“In most cases, even with a mobile app, the site (and responsive design) is still going to be an active part of the learning process,” adds Michael Finney, founder of Elightenment Learning.

The extra effort to download the app and the varying user experiences that they provide are also barriers to user adoption. “An app requires another step to download the app; apps are unique by device type and operating system; and they could lead to different user experiences across devices,” says Vieira.

Getting technical

Rafael Solis, co-founder and SVP of Product at Braidio, a mobile-optimized LMS, believes that a mobile app for an LMS may also be hindered by more technical aspects, such as authoring tools. “The most prominent course authoring tools are not well-optimized for the mobile app experience,” he says. “The experience can become choppy, and course authoring tools often require you to download an external player to pair with the LMS app. If your company has set up firewalls, or software that manages the staff’s mobile devices, this process can be inefficient and challenging. Some course authoring tools are also flash-based, and not based on HTML5, and as a result the interactivity of a course can be lost on a mobile app.”

But building a responsively designed mobile LMS mobile experience has its own technical pitfalls that small businesses must be sure not to fall into. “Be warned that a responsive approach does not just mean making the site smaller, but actually repositioning and scaling elements so that they make sense at scale, whether that is on a phone or tablet.,” says Miller. “This type of functionality would be built into your site if it was built by a high quality agency but is not yet the industry standard. If you are starting from scratch, be sure to ask your agency for examples of their responsive site designs so you can make sure the UX meets your requirements at all screen sizes.”

The future of mobile learning

According to Miller, there is one more option that may be the perfect solution for a company that feels that the either/or decision of responsive design versus a mobile app isn’t quite sufficient. And this is the web app. “Installed from the web in a similar way to how bookmarks can be added to your homescreen, many developers believe web apps are the future, as they provide the app experience without the cost of developing for multiple platforms and overhead of going through a major app store,” he says. “Your final decision on which way to go for your LMS ultimately depends on how much budget you have to accommodate your users’ preferences.”

“Ultimately, whether you are using a mobile app or a responsive mobile site for your LMS, it’s key to focus on creating short-form learning content, in bite-sized blocks, so that you can deliver learning that really engages your users,” adds Solis.

To help you choose the best learning management system for your business, head for GetApp’s Q3 LMS GetRank, where we rank the top applications based on five different data points, including mobile support.