Last month, New Oriental Education, China’s largest provider of private educational services, and Tencent, the leading texting provider in China with nearly 500 million users on its WeChat app, agreed to launch an integrated, chat-centric education service. The question every university should be asking is: What does this mean for online learning?

Just 10 years ago, many of us thought online learning meant earning a degree anytime, anywhere. With smartphones, it’s now possible to learn on the move. The trade-off is efficacy. The holy trinity of online learning — content/lecture, discussion, assessment — doesn’t translate to smartphones. To wit:

  • Navigating content: Navigating curriculum is challenging on a smartphone. Not only because of the small screen, which requires buttons/areas large enough to be selected by thumbs, but also because we use smartphones differently; smartphone users are much more likely than PC users to abandon content that takes more than five seconds to load.
  • Discussion: Discussion boards can work well on smartphones. Ubiquity counts for a lot in discussions. Synchronous video discussions also work, but not for an entire cohort or section (more likely 1:1, as with FaceTime), and also for sessions much shorter than class-length. However, smartphone posts are likely to be much shorter and informal than faculty are used to (e.g., 140 characters).
  • Testing. Formative assessments work very well on smartphones both in a classroom environment and out of class. But summative assessments do not.

The common thread should be clear. Anything that can be done in short bursts can work well on a smartphone.

So will online education rise or fall based on our ability to reengineer learning for bursts, like New Oriental is doing with Tencent? There certainly will be many smartphone educational applications like this. But not for formal learning leading to assessments and recognizable credentials. There are two reasons for this. First, the extensive curricula and summative assessments required to impart such credentials can’t be reengineered for bursts. Second, they may not have to be, because apps open a different path.

Apps are the solution to the smartphone challenge

Smartphone users’ sessions are currently 3x longer when they’re using apps vs. browsing websites. Apps are also visited much more frequently than websites. Total time spent on apps is currently growing at an annual rate of over 20 percent, and according to comScore, for smartphone users, apps now account for over 50 percent of total time spent with digital media. 18-24-year-olds are the heaviest app users.

Apps are purpose-built. So it’s not a stretch to imagine one app for Economics 101 and another for Psychology 110. Apps are ideal for simulations and gamified learning experiences. They’re also perfect for incorporating real-world inputs (such as location of the student) into learning.

But today’s “mLearning” landscape ignores this. Current university apps aren’t about formal learning at all. They’re about course selection or scheduling or finding your way around campus. Or they’re peripheral to the learning experience (e.g., medical abbreviations dictionary). It’s instructive that on the Blackboard Mobile Learn site, product features are pictured on smartphones for all categories (announcements, grades) except actually accessing course materials, which is shown on a tablet. That’s mCheating, not mLearning.

So although most online degree programs are now delivered via learning management systems that claim to be “mobile platforms,” believing that the solution to the mobile problem is simply allowing mobile access to a course with traditional online architecture is tantamount to believing your institution’s online strategy is effectively addressed by putting lectures on YouTube or iTunes.

Ryan Craig is a founding Managing Director of University Ventures, an investment firm focused on enabling innovation from within colleges and universities. Ryan is the author of the forthcoming book, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (March 2015, Palgrave Macmillan).

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