New year, new challenges and successes with Apple Configurator

A new year begins and the order for more iPads arrives on our doorstep. All the preparation last year setting up profiles, selecting and purchasing apps, backing up optimal setups to use as base models to set up batches of iPads are now to be put to the test. 100 iPads and 14 USB ports – how will it pan out?

Plugged first 14 in, everything fine except one iPad wouldn’t start up.

It appears that Configurator doesn’t deal with recovery mode so I had to shut down Configurator once the other iPads had finished syncing ( about 45 minutes – included iOS update, installing new apps, installing from a shared back up configuration and installing the student profiles discussed in my previous post on Configurator. You can’t have iTunes and Configurator open and operating at the same time.

The rogue iPad had to be connected to iTunes to restore. That took about 30 minutes then I reconnected to Configurator to run the update again. Interestingly, even though I assumed the restore added the latest iOS to the iPad, Configurator went through the updating of iOS 6 again. What I noticed later was that I had started straight in Supervise mode rather than Prepare.

The most annoying thing this week was that in every set of our older iPads from last year ( which incidentally I had configured last year without a hitch) there was one iPad that needed restoring. Whether that was an issue with the iPad, Configurator or a dodgy USB hub, I don’t know, but it wasted a good three hours, all because Configurator doesn’t restore iPads in Recovery mode.

Having said that, the 65 NEW iPads I set up this week were prepared, supervised and assigned by Configurator with very few hiccups. Most of the issues were self inflicted, with just a couple of annoying glitches that I defeated in the end.

Last year I created a junior Grade backup and a Middle/Senior Grade backup. This backup saved settings for the FileBrowser app, Safari bookmarks and the folder structures containing the apps. I also set up a profile ( in the Settings tab of the Prepare section of Configurator)  that included settings for the wifi, mail, restrictions and  zScaler proxy settings.

 

In Prepare or Supervise mode ( for new iPads, you have to Prepare first), under Settings you select the restore to Backup option and select the specific back up you want to use ( you can also select don’t restore if you don’t want to make any changes). There is also the option to update to the latest version of iOS ( or the option not to update). Make sure you have selected the desired Profiles if you have more than one.

Then switch to Apps and select the apps you want installed on the set of iPads you are preparing. Make sure you have enough copies of Paid apps added to Configurator to cover the full set of iPads you have connected or preparing or you will get errors. Also, if you have paid apps selected that haven’t been paid for that will cause errors as well. You need to be around when Configurator is adding Paid apps because it will want to log in to your VPP account and you need to insert the password to complete the action. Because I was adding different sets of apps to each Grade level’s iPads, I had to keep checking which apps were checked. If you make a mistake, you can always uncheck paid apps and reapply the preparation, returning the VPP codes to Configurator to be used later.

Once I had the settings and apps in place, I just had to hit Prepare and leave Configurator to set up the 14 iPads I had connected at once. ( I could have got a bigger hub but since I was setting up 14 iPads per Grade Level, the two 7 USB hubs I had were sufficient.) With about 50 apps added to the iPads, it took about 45-50 minutes to update to iOS 6.1, install free and paid apps, restore to the backup and configure profiles on the 14 iPads at once. This save A LOT of time compared to last year’s setup using iTunes.

Once the Prepare sequence was completed, I just switched to Supervise, checked the settings and Apps were still intact, hit Apply and the supervising phase started and finished in just a few minutes. You could stop here if you like but I chose to Assign the iPads to specific users in specific grade groups. As I explained in my previous post, because Configurator tethered the iPads to my Mac, resulting in the inability to download photos and movies to other computers  (which we overcome using wifi based FileBrowser solution) I assign the iPads to users so they can sync to Configurator and save files from apps that have a send   to iTunes option.

This should be simple. Once you have created groups and users, you select the group/users and click Check Out. You get a list of Users aligned to a set of iPads. You can select all iPads or USB connected Ipads to just see the ones you have connected. Click on Check out and it links user to iPad.

It was here I discovered a glitch that was partly caused by my workflow and partly by a flaw in the program.

I had already labelled my iPads and recorded the serial numbers in my spreadsheet before preparing in Configurator. As you can see in the annotated image above, there is an option to number the iPads sequentially. This saves a lot of time naming the iPads if preparing a lot for classrooms. What I didn’t realise is that the order I plugged them in didn’t match the sequencing of the iPad numbering so I ended up with a mismatch between the labels and the names in the iPad General Settings. I had to manually rename them  as a result, defeating the purpose. They also didn’t match up in the Assign mode and I had to drag and drop them to match USER/IPAD numbers. I eventually worked out that if I plugged the iPads into the USB hub in REVERSE order, the sequential numbering worked.

Example image – not from my setup

One final little set up I did was making a generic Lock Screen that identified the iPad to the school and the user. Annoyingly difficult to find since it is not part of the Prepare/Supervise/Assign screens, you have to go to Preferences in the File menu, drag and drop an image and select the option to include user/iPad number. If you don’t assign iPads to users, the Device Number appears on the screen. If you Assign Users, the User name appears instead.

While there were a couple of little issues this time around, each time I use Configurator, I improve my understanding of the workflow I need to use. It is infinitely better than iTunes as an option and I was happy with the speed of the setup of the iPad sets. I probably took almost as much time unpacking, cleaning up, labelling, setting up in trays and plugging in as it took to prepare each set. For a free app, I’m happy to keep using it. Future changes and updates won’t take long at all and I think I have finally got it under control.

Oh Apple Configurator, I will not be defeated!!

NOTE: In case you are unaware, Configurator is a Mac Only application. If you run your management of iPads with a PC, ignore this. ( or buy one Mac for your school. That’s what I did – we are PC only despite my Apple bias on this blog.)

As I’ve said many times this year on this blog, I’m more of a pedagogical user of software rather than a technician but being the resident Apple man, I was given responsibility for the iPad program at our school. I set up the trial iPads this year using iTunes under one shared account while we went about trialling the wonder tablet in our classrooms. At that stage, the Volume Purchasing Program was not available in Australia and Apple Configurator wasn’t available. Now that both are and we are on our way to purchasing a large new batch of iPads to add to our current sets, I have finally bitten the bullet and rushed headlong into being a Technician in charge of iPads.

I was disappointed in the lack of clarity in the Configurator manual and online help from Apple and I did a lot of fruitless searching for answers to my initial questions about Configurator. In the end, I decided to trust my level of understanding of Apple software along with my propensity to experiment and persist and just go ahead and try it out.

Initially, I was very happy with the basic idea behind Configurator and found it very simple to use until a major flaw, that unfortunately I’ve have decided to accept (more on that later) showed its ridiculous self.

For those who have not seen Configurator yet, it is set up to perform three functions:

  1. Prepare;
  2. Supervise, and;
  3. Assign.
The Prepare function was very simple to work out. You simply plug in the iPad/ iPads ( to start with I just plugged in a single iPad but eventually I did 7 at once; apparently 30 can be done if you have a big enough hub) and then create the settings and select the apps you want installed. Options for restoring from a specific backup or updating or ignoring the IOS to install on the selected iPad. You also can decided to automatically name the ipads sequentially by number if setting up a large number from scratch. I chose not to do this as I was reformatting iPads already allocated numbers in our records. The main setting to adjust is the profile.

To create a profile for a set of iPads ( you can create as many as you want – I’ll be creating a separate profile for the leadership team’s devices), you simply click on the + icon at the bottom of the window. This brings up the window shown below.

There are many settings you can manage. These include:

Passcode:( I chose not to set a passcode – setting this up for shared devices seems pointless, although it makes sense if setting up single use devices)

Restrictions: this involves allowing/disallowing camera/Facetime, Screen capture, Photo stream, iMessage, Siri, the Bookstore, App deleting and installing, and iCloud as well as restricting apps and media content

Wi-Fi/Global HTTP Proxy : set the type of network, password, network ID and proxy server. An improvement on iTunes, which although it saved settings through a backup restore, still needed the password to be entered individually on each iPad.

Mail Settings: this allows you to set up a mail account with all required settings, similar to the iPad set up but applied to all iPads seamlessly.

Certificates: Our system now uses zScaler cloud based filtering and web monitoring and this was installed by simply importing the downloaded certificate in this setting. A Configurator certificate is also installed by default when in supervised mode. While this seemed simple in theory, in practice, I had several problems with the certificate being verified after installation. I had to refresh iPads several times for this to take effect – Annoying glitch you need to look out for.

Two options that were more work than they should have been were the Calendar and Contacts. They require access to Calendar and Contact servers  instead of just syncing with the Calendar and Contact apps on the Mac. While I didn’t need to set up a calendar on a student iPad, I did want to add teacher email addresses to the Contacts app so they could email work to teachers if necessary. To work around this, I needed to save a vCard with all of the addresses and email it to the iPad’s email account. Then I could install the addresses on the iPad. I only had to so this on one iPad, save it as the new backup and then restore all the remaining iPads from that backup. Workable and unnecessarily time consuming when the Configurator app could have just accessed the Address Book directly.

Web clips can also be installed if you want to add links to school websites or other sites. At this stage, I haven’t tried that option but may in the future.

Other options like VPN, Exchange and other Enterprise level settings are there but probably not needed in most educational settings. I’ve read on some sites that some have a preferences for making multiple profiles for different settings so you can just select/deselect options if you want to make changes but I prefer to have all settings in a single profile.

Once the profile was set, it was on to the Apps. Again just click the + icon and you will be taken to your iTunes library and the Mobile Applications folder. Simply select the apps you want to install, and they will be imported into Configurator’s Apps panel. If an app is free, it will be labelled as free and can be installed on as many iPads as you want. If it is a paid app, a grey rounded button appears next to its name with a 0 in it. This is to signify it can’t be installed until you have purchased codes from the VPP ( Volume Purchasing Program ). Once you do purchase codes, you simply click on the grey button, locate and import the spreadsheet of codes and the number of codes show up on the button. Simple to use and understand.

Then it is just a matter of selecting the apps you want to install and clicking Prepare. The program then installs the most up to date iOS, all of the settings and apps while you go get a coffee. The time it takes depends on whether you already have the latest iOS on the iPad or not. Today, when I set up 14 iPads in two sessions ( I only have a 7 port hub) it took about 50 minutes to complete 7 iPads but they already had iOS 6.01 on them.

After I set up the initial iPad, I backed it up so that I could restore all the folder settings, addresses, Dropbox and FileBrowser settings to all the other iPads. This is an important step if you want all of the iPads to be identical. Once a backup is saved, you switch the restore option to that specific backup and all the other ipads will be restored to that setup.

Once prepared, you are ready to use the Supervised Panel. This is where you can make changes throughout the year to individual or groups of iPads simultaneously. You can remove or add apps, change profile settings, update iOS, make new back ups or change the name of the apps. The main benefit of the Supervise function is that when you remove paid apps from supervised iPads, the code is transferred back to the system and can then be used again on another iPad. This is a great function to have if you want to save money by only buying VPP codes for some of your iPads and switching them from one set to another.

The final function is Assign. I had no plans to use this function until I discovered the one MAJOR FLAW in supervising iPads. Once the iPad is under supervision by Configurator, it can no longer be connected to another computer in order to download photos or movies from the Camera Roll. This is a feature that is certainly NEEDED in a SCHOOL where one of the MAJOR FUNCTIONS is using the creative power of multimedia apps that can be saved as images or movies. What was Apple thinking here?

When I discovered this, I was going to give up on the SUPERVISED option and go UNSUPERVISED. However, this caused a lot of heartache. The profiles wouldn’t work, once an app was added, the code couldn’t be transferred, and worst of all, once the iPad was set up, you couldn’t add or delete apps through Configurator. So I had to make the compromise and decided we would have to rely on wi-fi transfer of photos ( easy ) and movies ( slow but possible) using our FileBrowser set up. Hopefully, though, Apple will change this flaw if it is serious about school use.

Anyway, back to Assign. With Assign, you can create users and assign them to groups and iPads. This meant you could check out the iPad to a user and when it was checked back in through Configurator, you could download work from any app that has iTunes Sharing as an option. Not ideal with potentially 100 different students wanting to access files on ONE computer but a last resort. Having said that, while I haven’t set them up yet, Assign is a nice way to sort the iPads into groups for each grade level, which will happen next year with more iPads being available.

One of the main reasons I wanted to use Configurator was to find a simple way of managing the iPads. Using iTunes meant a lot of work arounds to get the iPads set up this year. When I eventually leave one day, I want something that a novice can take over without too much hassle. iTunes wasn’t going to allow that to happen with 100 iPads. Despite its glitches and that ONE MAJOR FLAW, Configurator is an easy to use ( once I worked it out) program that I can explain to someone else.

I also have one gripe with the VPP. You only get the codes, not the app. You have to download the app from iTunes using one of the codes, then add it to Configurator and uninstall it to retrieve the used code back ( so I have read, anyway)Not good, Apple. Set up the VPP as a download store as well please.Fortunately, I had copies of all the apps already so I didn’t have to go through the hassle but for others it would be a pain.

I know there are other management programs out there and its Mac Only  but with Configurator being free, it seemed the best option at the time. I wish it would work wirelessly  ( apparently it can with Lion Server, which I don’t have) but overall, I think it is a serviceable program for what we will probably maintain in the near future. If anyone has any questions or  other tips or alternatives I’d love to hear them.