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.