One term into the official launch of our iPad program, I thought it would be opportune to reflect on the successes, failures and everything in between. I have to admit, as a self professed, but not certified, iPad/Mac “expert” and ‘All Things Apple’ zealot, things haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. I would like to blame it all on our proxy server, but I suspect Apple has something to do with it too.
I set up our iPads before Apple’s Configurator software for managing iPads came out. Regardless, the initial set up was pretty smooth. I set up the base iPad configuration on a targeted iPad and backed it up to my dedicated Mac Mini iPad machine. (Last year, when we trialled a small set of iPads with teachers, I was stuck using an Acer PC Laptop. Windows + iTunes + iPad ≠ smooth management. I strongly argued for a lone Mac to maintain my sanity in dealing with our iPad setup this year.) I set up all the apps in designated purpose built folders, created the school network connection, connected to iCloud, configured the network app FileBrowser to connect to our school network so we could access files and thought everything was ready to go.
In the main it was fine. I set up each of the remaining 34 iPads from the backed up iPad configuration using a 7 port USB hub. I know you can sync more than that with the Mac, but the 7 port hub was bought last year to work with the Windows ‘solution’ ( I was lucky to get 3 connected at one time!) and I never got around to buying a bigger one for this year. In the end, the delay in waiting for the Restores to finish before I could start the next installation meant having 16 plugged in would have meant a lot of waiting anyway. The whole set up took about 2 days to finish and was pretty painless; I had one error on one iPad that I had to reinstall but other than that each iPad’s installation went flawlessly if not a little long in duration but that was because I installed too many apps (more on that later). About a week later, Apple’s Configurator was released. ( missed it by that much!)
The hassles came in the weeks to follow. Due to a lack of forward thinking on my own behalf, there were several configuration set ups I didn’t think to do on the base iPad “image”. It was only when the iPads started being used and teachers and students wanted to email documents that I realised that I had not set up an email account on the iPads. Orginally I hadn’t considered it because of the perceived hassle of everyone wanting to use their own email on a shared iPad. That wasn’t going to work. However, we still needed a system to email work in apps that didn’t support other solutions. In the end, I set up a dedicated account in our school internet-based mail system just for the iPad ( with my account as the forwarding address in case inappropriate mail was being received) so that anyone could SEND emails to their own accounts to be opened on other computers. I also soon realised that I had inadvertently set up the FileBrowser app’s network access and the Edmodo app under my name so that any user on any iPad was logged in as me! All these settings had to be individually changed to fix that obvious security hole. Fortunately, I solved this quickly through the use of my newly appointed Student ICT Leadership team who spent an hour with me changing all the settings. Before you worry about the handing over of responsibility to students, none of this required providing sensitive information to them. I actually recommend training up a small group of students to help with non-critical management that doesn’t need passwords or the like – they’re easier to train than most adults as long as they are trustworthy, which mine are under supervision. They have also helped me with setting up numbered wallpapers for better identification, folder creation and maintenance and other simple management tasks.
MAINTAINING THE SETUP
The next issue to arise is the updating and installing of new apps and system updates. Originally, I had set up the iPads to sync and update wirelessly so that I wouldn’t have to manage that constantly. Unfortunately, I found this too be less than ideal for a number of reasons.
I’m not sure if it was because of our proxy server being mean to iTunes, the wifi being overloaded and inconsistent or a combination of both but I could never get the iPads to consistently sync. Some iPads would end up with newly purchased apps automatically installed while others wouldn’t. Some iPads would backup and update apps while others would deliver error messages to iTunes. Often, someone would open up an iPad to use an app they had previously used to find it in a longstanding waiting to update state, rendering it unusable. Then the emails from the Office complaining about the bills for exceeding our monthly downloads started coming. So I went back to physically connecting the iPads to iTunes and manually syncing for app updates and loading of new apps. This has proved to be less problematic and allowed me to keep all the iPads consistent in setup.
Having said that, with the number of apps I have loaded on iTunes , the download limit for the school is still being exceeded and I’ve resorted to taking an iPad home and updating there with my unlimited iTunes download account and then syncing the updated apps back to the Mac Mini at school. This is clearly not a viable long term solution as I won’t be around at the school forever and my home account can be relied upon as a management system. My ICT leader just informed me this week that the download cap issue is being fixed so that is one problem solved for us but is still a consideration for others to deal with .
Just as frustratingly problematic has been upgrading the iOS system software. As soon as I had set up all the iPads at the start of the year and rolled them out for use , the 5.1 update was released. Sometimes in schools, upgrade cycles are delayed because the benefits of upgrades are outweighed by the hassles of interrupting the workflow of others when dealing with a large scale deployment of devices. From personal experience, though, upgrading iOS was a walk in the park so I decided to do the upgrade straight away. Apple’s own upgraded apps wouldn’t work without the update anyway.
Well, again, not sure if it was proxy problems or trying to manage too many devices from a single computer but it wasn’t smooth sailing. Waiting for each iPad to install, load and restart before the next update cycle for the next iPad could begin meant a lot of wait time. iPad management is not my full time job so this was a time issue that could effect teachers in other schools who also become the iPad person. Occasionally updates would fail and you would have to start again. Once or twice, I’ve discovered one or two iPads in a set not up to date. For some reason, again possibly the proxy server problem, I couldn’t update wirelessly so I’ve just taken them home to run the update. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t used Apple Configurator software yet because I haven’t had the chance to interrupt the workflow of iPad use to reconfigure the whole set up. Reading some reviews, it seems to be a good solution so will see how that goes at end of year when I reimage and set up for 2013.
Once all the setup hassles have been tackled, I can at least report the general day to day usage has run smoothly. In our case, all the iPads are centrally stored in one locked cupboard in my office. I set up a borrowing system on GoogleDocs that the teachers use to book out sets of iPads for timetabled sessions. We have five sets of 7 iPads in transportable kits. Instead of spending money on expensive sync carts, we decided to buy dish washing racks from the local hardware store and attached a powerboard to each rack. The iPads fit snugly in the racks and can be easily carried from office to classrooms. There are teachers who don’t like the hassle of “collect and return” but for charging, syncing and security reasons, we want all the iPads in a central locations at the end of the day. Each iPad is also assigned to an individual teacher so they can take one overnight or on weekends to explore. They have to sign an ipad agreement before this happens to ensure due care is taken. There have been occasional care issues with the return of the sets. It would be nice to see teachers take the extra 5 minutes to ensure the cables aren’t tangled or crossed over and the iPads are put neatly back in the racks.
There was a suggestion that the iPads should be available to only the junior grades since the senior grades had access to so much technology and the juniors didn’t but I pushed for a trial period of P-6 access. I didn’t want the situation of 35 iPads sitting idle waiting for the juniors to use them while the older children were hanging out for a chance to get their hands on them for valid reasons. As it stands, everyone is using them fairly consistently and there are still days when some sets don’t see the light of day. More training sessions are needed to showcase their potential use, Once that happens more frequently ( report writing time has delayed that in recent weeks ) I’m sure we’ll see empty cupboards.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
After reading this you could either be doubting my supposed credentials as an iPad blogger or hesitating to tackle large scale deployment of iPads. Hopefully you won’t do either of those. Despite the hassles, the general experience has been a good one. My biggest mistake has been trying to do it all on my own. As a lifelong Apple user, I’m used to working out issues by myself but on a big scale you need support. Have a look at Configurator in the Mac App Store. Call Apple. Talk to others in the same situation.
Plan. Have a clear plan for what you want on each iPad. Make sure you know what you want in terms of network settings, mail settings, apps, restrictions and so on before you set up the iPad image you want to use. Think about how you are going to manage the upkeep long term and have an organized plan for that. Do your research. Make sure you have all infrastructure in place that can manage your plan effectively. Know what your school’s Internet usage is. Know how your security setting like proxies are and how they may affect your plan. ( ICT leader has just met with new Education Office expert who informs us that new system coming will solve the proxy problems we have – double Yay!!) Know your budget and for those outside USA, know that the Volume Purchasing Program is on its way and we will need to be stricter on our app purchasing and deployment.
I would love to hear from others their success stories and frustrations. This time two years ago the iPad was just a personal media device intended for individual use. In a very short time it has become a must have educational tool without a perfect system to make it happen. It’s no that simple yet.