Mobile Apps in Education: Big Stakes and Crazy Competition

November 10, 2014

Schoolchildren and adults willing to learn something new have widely adopted mobile technologies over the past few years. Smartphones and tablets have become not just devices for calling, browsing the Internet and occasionally watching movies while commuting, but gadgets that can replace or at least complement traditional textbooks, lectures, and other conventional study methods.

There’s no wonder that learners prefer to use mobile apps than spend hours attending offline courses or reading endless books with no interactive elements whatsoever. For adults who never have enough time, mobile learning means freedom to take a lesson or two before going to sleep or in a train, while the youngest audience with short attention span admires the possibility to switch between different subjects and activities.

In the US, Apple has been the apparent leader in educational tech, and nothing really has changed since the Mobile Education Landscape Report was published by GSMA in 2012:

Apple is positioned as poised to change the learning landscape. It manufactures devices, supports content development (apps) and distributes education content through their App Store and especially iTunes U. It has a clear market focus on education, conducting trials, supporting educators and donating used iPads (to Teach for America), and has supported many pilots and successful implementations of Apple devices in the classroom. Apple devices are attractive not only to consumers and learners, but also to the education sector due to their high levels of functionality and value-add and low levels of training, support and maintenance. The iPad especially, increasingly looks like a game changer.

The growth of the education apps market attracts many new minor and major players. As of September 2014, one in ten apps available in the Apple App Store was in the education category, according to the data gathered by Statista.

In the classroom and beyond

The rapid development and quick adoption of the new technologies — again, particularly in the US, — have created a huge multi-billion market for all kinds of applications for education purposes. Some of them are integrated with learning management systems (LMS) used in modern classrooms, and the other part — mostly gaming apps, — are aimed towards children spending time outside a school or kindergarten. For example, Blackboard LMS offers universities a platform called Blackboard Mobile Learn, upon which they can build customized apps for their students. Check out how the Northwestern University implemented it:

Back in 2011, Wall Street Journal reported that 30 American states let students take all their courses online. As of the same year, an estimated 250,000 students nationwide were enrolled in full-time “virtual schools,” while more than two million pupils were taking at least one class online.

It is hard to estimate the size of the market of apps that are being used in the schools as they are part of bigger LMS, but it’s safe to say that it accounts for a significant part of the whole worldwide eLearning market, the volume of which reached $56.2 billion in 2013.

Another part of the educational apps industry are learning games for children, which, according to the data compiled by mobile application development company Jungle Adventure in 2013, accounted for more than 80 percent of the best-selling paid apps in the iTunes Store’s education category.

According to the data of Ambient Insight, the Serious Games market (that’s how it calls gamified learning apps) will grow to $2.3 billion in 2017. The huge potential of the market can also be seen in the App Annie Market Index report where the Education category has taken the fourth place by revenue in iOS App Store.

Tight competition in education apps

The problem with the “serious games” is that many (actually, too many) developers saw a good opportunity in the education segment and deluged the market with applications of dubious quality. TechInAsia quotes SmarTots founder Jesper Lodahl as saying that 39 out of 40 educational apps today are rubbish. Another developer, Andrew Friday, whose mobile app development company created popular education apps Meerkat Math and Reading Train, says it might even be an understatement.

In the same piece, Friday explains main reasons why education apps have become very difficult to market and make money off, especially for indie developers. First of all, with literally thousands of offers in the App Store, it’s extremely difficult for the parents to choose the best application, so they usually end up with the first one that is good enough. That basically means that if Apple has not featured your app and you don’t have a huge marketing budget, it will most probably be buried under piles of rubbish in the App Store.

On the other hand, education is a category where the freemium model doesn’t work. To be precise, it actually does work, however parents usually are reluctant in installing freemium apps to their children’s gadgets. The reason here is that such apps may contain inappropriate ads that a child would tap on, or in-app purchases that the young user, again, will probably inadvertently make.

Be it as it may, but it seems like nothing can really discourage education enthusiasts from creating innovative ways of mobile learning. New apps are mushrooming in the App Store every day, and the education industry will never be the same as people born in the 20th century remember it.