When an institution acquires a new learning management system (LMS), it can reasonably expect to meet only 80% of its total teaching and learning requirements with the new system’s features and capabilities. It can only meet the remaining requirements through integrated third-party applications and modules. The selection of additional integrated applications and an understanding of which applications work best with each platform should be a critical part of any LMS implementation plan, but this knowledge eludes most. Too often, institutions are left wondering, “Given our limited budget and IT resources, which apps are proven to work well with our LMS and have the greatest impact on student outcomes?”

There are as many definitions for what constitutes a “must-have” app as there are institutions. Each LMS vendor also has a perspective on the matter, sometimes with an inherent bias towards its own apps. Beyond the technical details of integrating an app with the learning environment, institutions should base their decisions on whether the app has improved outcomes at similar institutions. Unfortunately, the current state of educational app stores—destinations where schools can discover new, innovative education apps—is fractured at best. Institutions still need to visit multiple sites and gather information from several perspectives to determine which apps to pursue.

What You Can Learn from App Stores

LMS vendors are hoping to maximize product engagement by making it easier to discover both free and paid applications in their educational app stores. Users can read about others’ ratings of and experiences with each product and, once they find an application that will add value, install and configure it with a simple click.

Nearly all major LMS vendors have an educational app store to feature the apps that work best with their platforms and can be launched from the LMS using industry standards like learning tools interoperability (LTI). Instructure’s app store is unique in that it includes apps that work with any LTI-supporting LMS, not just its own Canvas LMS. While Moodle does not run its own app store in a marketplace format, its developer website provides a great deal of information on open-source modules. When it comes to how to integrate a given app and whether or not it is certified to work with a particular LMS, however, the site provides limited technical information at most. The Instructure App Center, meanwhile, tells you if a product requires a license, authentication, or special code to run, but provides no information about pricing or licensing. The Schoology App Center goes a much needed step further by providing up-front pricing information for products that require a separate license to run.

If you’re wondering which mobile apps from the Apple App Store will integrate with your LMS, you’re a bit out of luck. Even if your institution uses iTunes U to allow faculty to bundle and push apps, content, and resources to student devices, each app developer must integrate with the SIS on its own. Apple’s recent acquisition of LearnSprout seems to signal that it is aware of this weakness in its architecture. Over time, Apple will leverage LearnSprout technology to provide a centralized resource for app developers writing for iOS to access institution-managed student data. If Apple wants to encourage discovery of these data-connected applications, it will need to provide information about support for LMS platforms in the App Store itself.

The Crowdsourced Perspective

Unfortunately, all LMS vendor app stores lack information about usability, institutional experiences, training, support, and product efficacy. This is a major concern for institutions, which traditionally select technology based on peer advice and best practices.

Luckily, LearnTrials is stepping up to provide a wealth of community-sourced information about educational apps as a free service for IT administrators and educators. LearnTrials strives to be the Yelp to the LMS vendors’ Yellow Pages. Whereas LMS vendor app stores offer long listings with basic information, LearnTrials includes ratings and testimonials. It assigns each app a simple “LearnGrade” (A+ through F) that rolls up scores across several categories, such as ease of use, teaching impact, and the likelihood that teachers would recommend the product to others.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) System launched its Learning Technology Commons using the LearnTrials curation platform. This initiative builds off a previous attempt to curate mobile apps at the UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center. Its goal is to share aggregated, anonymized data from 20,000 faculty users across the UNC system on the application’s usage and outcomes. UNC is going a step beyond simple curated feedback by requiring vendors to apply to be listed on the Commons website. All vendors that make the cut are qualified for expedited purchase by interested faculty.

There is one major shortfall to the LearnTrials product library: users cannot search apps by the LMS platforms they support. They can filter apps by availability on desktop, mobile, or the generically named “web,” but they can’t drill into which web applications support LTI, LRMI, or any other interoperability standard that is needed to integrate the app with an LMS. For UNC, this shouldn’t be a problem, as it has the means to only include products that have been proven to work with its technology ecosystem. Other institutions could conceivably follow UNC’s lead by screening all vendors for inclusion in a private app store, but this model is too time-consuming and cumbersome for most institutions, particularly those that only need a handful of applications to round out their LMS.

Where to Start Self-Discovery

Eduventures recommends that you begin your evaluation process with the app store your LMS provides. Working from a list of LMS-supported applications, search community sites, such as LearnTrials, for user perspectives on each product. Finally, reach out to the vendors directly to ask for product demonstrations, trial access, customer references, and integration documentation. With a combination of technical specs, best practices for implementation, and vendor-supplied demonstrations, every institution can make an informed decision and choose the right applications to round out its core investment in a learning management system.