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"Native" vs. "Browser-based" E-Learning Applications

We recommend using a hybrid of downloadable software and the web for maximum effectiveness. For large applications that do not require frequent updates, downloads are better while for smaller applications requiring frequent updates the web is better. We would make FAcT downloadable via the web if the downloads could be protected from redistribution. This is why our trial version is downloadable but not the full version.

This page is about the choice between applications that run directly on an operating system ("Native applications") and applications that run with a browser ("Browser-based" applications).

Advantages of Browser-based Learning Applications

We have been offering e-learning since 1995 and would have quickly moved entirely to the web if the choice was clear cut. The major advantages of browser-based applications as opposed to native Windows applications are supposed to be in distribution, tracking, cross platform compatibility, and communication. Our experience tells us the following:

  • Distribution: Introductory Financial Accounting concepts do not require daily updates. We update the software once every year and that is more than sufficient to fix errors and bring the software up-to-date. Web is certainly appealing when the content changes frequently. In fact, we provide numerous web links so that students can access relevant current information. As mentioned above, we would also make our application downloadable if such downloads could be protected from redistribution. Running the application strictly within a browser is also unappealing to those who frequently do not have fast internet connections when they travel.
  • Tracking and assessment:
    • Our experience tells us that students detest constant monitoring. They are more likely to complain about "technical problems" if the computer is used for such monitoring and view the computer as their adversary as opposed to a tool that enhances their learning. Yes, students do need motivation but not the constant monitoring that is often touted to be the advantage of the web.
    • On-line assessment is often limited to multiple-choice quizzes because it is difficult for a computer to grade longer problems that require multiple steps. This is especially difficult if one wants to give partial credit or not penalize students repeatedly for carrying through a mistake that they make in the initial steps of a problem. We have seen several vendors offer assessment solutions but have yet to see a real grading solution to the longer problems that are a necessary part of accounting. That is why we still hand out traditional problems and grade them manually. Of course, these exams can be easily posted to the web for distribution.
    • In our experience, a hybrid of download and the web is ideal. Most schools and corporations have their own learning management system. Periodic quizzes can be added to such learning management systems that motivate students to pace themselves. For an extra fee, we can work with you to add on-line quizzes to your learning management system. If you do not have a learning management system, we can host these quizzes for you at the SumTotalSystems site.
  • Cross platform compatibility: In our experience, Windows XP and above cover almost all of our clients eliminating the need for compatibility with Macs and UNIX. Moreover, cross platform compatibility on the client side is mostly hypothetical. There are often many differences in browser implementations and versions across platforms making it very difficult to ensure cross-platform compatibility.
  • Communication: Communication among students is certainly an advantage of web-based system. We have seen the software being used in conjunction with a learning management system such as SumTotalSystems that allows participants to communicate in a variety of ways.

Disadvantages of Moving Entirely to Browser-based Applications

There are some serious drawbacks of moving learning materials entirely to the web. These drawbacks are not often mentioned in the press but we have become aware of them given our relatively long experience in trying to deliver effective e-learning.

  • The rich interactive features of the native software such as the drag-and-drop journal entries simply do not work directly in the browsers. One needs to use Java/Javascript on the client side or use Neuron plug-in (DHTML does not support drag-and-drop either). In our experience, each option has the following problems:
    • Java: One needs to separate the use of Java on the server side versus Java on the client side. Java works well on the server side and is heavily used. However, the drag-and-drop user interaction requires Java on the client (user) side.
      • Netscape and Internet Explorer differ in their implementation of Java/Javascript on the client side.
      • Even different versions of the same browser are not fully compatible.
      • Microsoft does not include the Java virtual machine in the standard download of Internet Explorer. Therefore, users may have to download and install the Java virtual machine.
      • The security settings in many networks often prevent full use of Java on the client side.
      • Even if the application works correctly on current versions of browsers, it is difficult to ensure that it would work when new browser versions, patches, or security bulletins are released.
      • We had significant technical problems when we tried Java on a test basis.
    • Plug-in: Use of any plug-in requires that the users have the plug-in installed. Some plug-ins such as Macromedia Flash are supposed to be widely available, but the reality is that most users do not have the current version of plug-ins requiring downloads and installations. FAcT can be made to work on the web via the Neuron plug-in (about 6 Mbytes) but some useful features do not work in the plug-in. Plug-ins are still fraught with problems as many network firewalls prohibit downloading and installing plug-ins.
  • Students have voiced their strong opposition to the slow speeds (yes, any meaningful e-learning application is large enough to have slow downloads even on fast networks).
  • Any minor hiccups on the web-server running the e-learning package or network congestion result in the software being unavailable to students.
  • Overall, we view the Financial Accounting Tutor as a very interactive and well written e-text. The best testimonial to its success is the scores of happy students that have used the software. We are not opposed to the web and recommend that the Financial Accounting Tutor be used in conjunction with a learning management system chosen by your organization.