Pain and Remedies of Sharing iPads in Schools

NASA Visualization Explorer (iPad app)

There is no end to the uses of the iPad in education. I’ve discussed that ad nauseum on this blog. As a learning tool, it has the potential to make a great positive change to learning. The only problem is Apple designed it for individual use. Schools are designed for ( or budgeted for) shared use. Conventional wisdom is for iPad use to occur in a 1:1 or BYOD Environment. In the best case scenario,  I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, financial realities will often dictate that sharing is the only viable option if we want our students to enjoy the benefits of the iPad. It can be done effectively – I’ve shared my thoughts early in the year about the pros and cons of shared iPads – but doesn’t happen without some time consuming workarounds. What follows is my take on the pains (and remedies) of sharing iPads in a rather large Primary (elementary) school.

If you have your own iPad, privacy, safety and security boils down to deciding to use a passcode to lock your iPad screen and, if required, being connected to your school’s network filtering system. In a shared iPad environment there is a truckload more of procedures, policies and effort involved.

In our situation, the iPads are mainly for the students but I have assigned each of the iPads to a teacher for overnight borrowing. This allows them the opportunity to explore the preinstalled apps and experiment with how they can use the iPad in their classes. With the iPads being shared with students from Prep to Grade 6,though, we need to be careful with what teachers leave accessible on the tablet. Because of this, we had to adopt a borrowing agreement for teachers to sign. It covered accountability for damage, stipulations that all work done on the iPad be removed, limits on sites visited on the browsers, and most importantly, returning it the next day so the students can access them. The restrictions have limited the borrowing by teachers during the year, especially the need to clear them of all work. Getting teachers onto options like Dropbox, which is accessible through most of the apps we use would alleviate the pain, especially now that it is finally working at school, but that’s another PD program in itself.

Our school has had issues with using a proxy server with iPads since we’ve had them. With multiple users trying to log on to the internet using their own secure username and password, we had issues with Safari staying connected to accounts and  apps randomly trying to connect to the internet via repeating login screens. We have recently switched over to ZSCALER which not only has solved the proxy conflict with most apps, most notably Dropbox and Evernote, but has also made accessing the internet with multiple users more secure. Each time a user has log on since ZSCALER, there has been no issue with Safari staying connected to a particular user’s account.

However, a new issue has arisen, albeit with a solution already worked out. ZSCALER works with an initial log on via a designated username and password per computer. This works well on computers that allow for individual user accounts. The problem with the iPad is that there is a single user set up , not logins. This means that whoever logs in to ZSCALER on the iPad first stays connected to their ZSCALER permissions. Even though each additional user can log onto their personal internet account, their access is dictated by the permissions of the first user. This is fraught with danger if the first user is a teacher with full access and then a Prep student gets it and no sites are blocked!!

The intial workaround is to go into Safari settings and clear the History and Cookies. This resets ZSCALER and allows for a new login. The problem with this solution is that we don’t want the students messing around with settings. What we’ve decided to do is create a single student user account that contains all the permissions appropriate for students and login into all the iPads with that as a one off. Then they can be left alone. Teachers will have to live with the restrictions.

One successful remedy we have working consistently well is accessing the school network. Using the iPad app FileBrowser, which I outline in this post, everyone can log on to the network and access their files, which can be opened on the iPad if a compatible app exists. With most apps accessing FileBrowser through the Open in… function, users can also save their work back to the school network. The added bonus of FileBrowser is that it can access the iPad camera roll so any image or movie saved by apps there can be copied to the network through the app. The only issue is making sure everyone logs out of the network when they finish using Filebrowser ( this involves a simple click on an electric plug icon). This is one success story with sharing iPads without any lasting issues.

The most obvious problem with sharing iPads, and yes I know it has been discussed at length on countless iPad flavoured blogs, is the lack of file system and autosave/store within app functionality of the iPad. It’s great for its original purpose of easy access for the intended individual use scenario. For shared environments, it creates a mountain of files stored by potentially hundreds of users. Will other users delete/ overwrite or edit the file? Will we run out of storage space because of the number of photos, movies, animations, comic strips, documents, drawings, ebooks etc floating around all those apps waiting to be completed?

Again, all of this can be dealt with through a number of file sharing or transferring methods. I’ve already mentioned the successful use of FileBrowser. Dropbox or Google Drive access is another good option, emailing files is often used by those less adept at using newer methods. The biggest issue is consistent adoption of these methods. Often students and teachers save their work to one of the above options but still leave the original copy on the iPad. This leads to a build up of files that no one is certain are safe to be deleted. It will take time for everyone at school to get into the routine of transfer then delete, but it is a workable solution.

Funnily enough, for many at school, the biggest issue of sharing has nothing to do with the limitations of the technical side of the iPad. It’s simply the access to them. At present, they are stored centrally in one place in a set of carry trays. For some, and it is a reasonable complaint, it is difficult to carry them across the expanses of our rather large property to their class rooms, especially the juniors who can’t rely on the little ones to help carry them. On top of that, some still find it a technical chore to use the online borrowing system I have devised. And of course, 35 iPads for 760 students ‘aint’ exactly 1:1!

Having brought up all these issues, though, doesn’t downplay the successful use of iPads that have taken place this year. Many videos, ebooks, slideshows, digital stories, audio recordings and comics would not have been made without their introduction. Junior grades without the widespread access to other technology enjoyed by the senior grades have been given greater opportunities with ICT as a result of the iPads. Engagement in learning has undoubtedly been enhanced. With plans for more, access will become less problematic. With our proxy server issues over, we can set up cloud options for transferring files and continue to improve in our use of FileBrowser and deleting files when finished with them. We will always be a shared iPad environment. We will make it work.

What stories do you have of your shared iPad experiences. Please leave a comment to let us know. Join the conversation.

18 thoughts on “Pain and Remedies of Sharing iPads in Schools

  1. Our biggest issue has been trying to hide the ability to use a passcode on an iPad.

    The two choices I’m limited to at the moment:

    Option 1…add my own passcode
    -Students would have to be told of the passcode to unlock device
    -Students could then go to settings
    -Could enter current passcode
    -Could change passcode
    -Device would then be locked
    -Device would need to be restored (via iTunes – Home+Power and then via configurator again)

    Option 2 …don’t add any passcode
    -Students could then go to settings
    -Could enter a new passcode
    -Device would then be locked
    -Device would need to be restored (via iTunes – Home+Power and then via configurator again)

    • I hear you, J Johnston. In our present situation, we aren’t using pass codes – the need for locking them just isn’t an issue. Our students are just engaged in using them for their intended purpose. However, I had a student 2 years ago that would have required a different approach. He deleted half the folders in our class network folder before our IT dept finally saw the wisdom of individual student logins😉

      I can see this being an issue in a high school with tech savvy kids wanting to be challenging. We have a pretty strong user policy which we are not afraid to enforce ( that student above needed to rely own pen and paper and reference books for a long period of time). I have restrictions in place that requires a pass code only I know so that no one can change the restrictions. It would be most useful if Apple added system settings to the restrictions options – seems a no brainier to me, especially with their supposed commitment to iPads in schools.

      • Again, fully agree with you about access to System settings.

        We’ve got two sets (15 and 30)….both set booked out 3-4 hours per day and probably used by 150+ different students each day.

        Only 3-4 times in past 6 months has someone put on the passcode…just that when they do, it’s back to iTunes then Configurator.

  2. Great post as always Mark. At the moment I am trying to get my head around how to use dropbox on the student iPads. I have dropbox on my personal iPad and it syncs with my dropbox on my laptop. No problems there.
    However our student iPads are all set up with the +1@gmail method, so that each iPad has it’s own +number, but how do you set up the dropboxes on them so they all sync with a dropbox on a single computer so that the files can be shared? I hope this makes sense!

    • Hi, Viv. Need to clarify a few things before I possibly whip up a little video tutorial for you.
      Do the students have their own unique Dropbox account they log on to on a PC?
      Why is it important that everything syncs to a single computer?
      Is this single computer yours so you can access their files? If so, then we need to go over sharing folders between Dropbox users.

      In a September post,you asked for similar assistance. Not sure if you saw my last reply so here is a copy of that thread.

      Viviene Tuckerman
      Submitted on 2012/09/21 at 3:42 PM
      Hi Mark, we have a setup where all the ipads have their own individual account and email, using the +1 method with gmail.
      They still all sync to one computer, and the ability to update without a password will be wonderful.
      Is is possible for all the ipad to have a separate dropbox account? Then when they sync to the computer what would happen. I am curious about this.

      Submitted on 2012/09/21 at 8:52 PM
      In the settings of the Dropbox app you can unlink the account ( the same as logging out ) then you can login as a different account again. Works just like logging in and out of network on computers.

      Viviene Tuckerman
      Submitted on 2012/09/21 at 9:56 PM
      Thanks Mark. So, just let me get this straight…..You can sign into dropbox on the ipad under a different account, as well as the dropbox on the computer you use to sync to? Not quite sure how this would work. I have not used dropbox at school with class iPads thus far, only with my own ipad and computer. Thanks for your patience. Would love to have a workshop with you sigh…..

      Submitted on 2012/09/22 at 9:40 AM
      Since I don’t know what your understanding of Dropbox is, Viv, I’ll go back to the start. I have a Dropbox folder living in the cloud that is accessible from a folder on my iMac, my MacBook, the Mac mini, PCs and laptops at school as well as my iPad and iPhone. I make a new file and it syncs to the cloud and then syncs to all my devices. If I delete a file it disappears from all my devices. However, if I log off from Dropbox on any device, my files are still intact in the cloud. So if I log off on the iPad and log on to another account, I’m just linking to another account. I don’t lose the files, just access temporarily. If student A logs in, he has access to his files until he logs out. Then student B can login in to her Dropbox account, access her files and log out again. When student A gets the iPad again he logs back into Dropbox and sees his files again. Same as using PCs on a network.

      Hope that clears it up. As for the workshop, that’ll cost meals, accommodation and return airfares 😜

      If your issue is you wanting to access all their folders, then it’s a matter of the students sharing their folder with you. That means you can see every student’s folder in your account ( not sure how many students that would end up being!) but the students themselves only see their folder. It’s how I wOrk with my team of teachers. We each have our own account but share common folders so we can access files we need as a team.

      So on iPads students login and out (link/unlink) of Dropbox app, “open in…” to a compatible app to edit work, open in… back to Dropbox app to save work in their folder and then if their folder is shared with you, you will see it on computer or iPad.

      Keep questions coming if this didn’t help ( or save up the money for my airfare and accommodation😜)

  3. Vivienne,
    Our students use Dropbox accounts. Remember that they can always use the websave option, meaning that they can go to the web based version of their Dropbox account and save the items by logging into their account. This would provide a work around and would not require installing dropbox on all the ipads for every student. Sharing of folders works the same.

  4. Students should be able to use the webbased version of Dropbox and not have to install individual drop boxes. Our students use their own email accounts for Dropbox. Their logons for the school computers are not their own email. (We are not Ipad or 1-1, but are working on it this year)

    • Suzanne, from your last sentence, it sounds like you are using Dropbox on computers, not iPads. On iPads you can only open documents through the web version of Dropbox. To edit them, you have to open n an app. from there, you cannot upload it back through the web. The only files you can upload own the Internet on iPads through a browser are photos or movies from the camera roll. It is one of the unfortunate limitations of the iPad that prevents it from being a 100% computer replacement.

  5. Thanks Mark, so first up you install dropbox on each iPad. Does each iPad dropbox then have a separate account and each student also have their own account?
    When a student then logs into the iPad and uploads files to the dropbox app do they then have automatic access to their own dropbox account also? Or do they sign in and out of the dropbox right there on the iPad?
    Hence, on my own iPad dropbox, could I sign out and another person sign in?
    I was hoping they could all sync to the one dropbox account and then a teacher could access that one dropbox account to get all the student files off. Thanks for your patience!

    • If you are happy for all the students to share an account and have a personal folder within that account, then yes the easiest way is to have one account, set up all the iPads with that one account that doesn’t have to be changed and its done.

      You need to consider how many MBs each student will use since a free account only comes with 2Gb. A whole class sharing that might run out of space. But if its just to transfer files from the iPad it should be fine.

      The other issue is security. Can you trust that no troublemaking student would mess with someone else’s file? My students this year wouldn’t but two years ago I can name one who would. Again if its just a temporary method of transferring to the teacher rather than long term storage, that shouldn’t be a problem either.

      So if you just want to use it to transfer files then one account is fine.

    • The iPad Dropbox app doesn’t have to be set up to a specific account until its actually used. That’s when you link it to an account which can then be unlinked and linked again.

  6. Thanks Mark. The one account for my class seems a good solution, as I could empty the dropbox regularly from the and so stop it getting too full.
    This particular class are not troublemakers, so I am not too concerned in that regard. It is just an easy way for us to get the files off the ipad and stored elsewhere. Cheers.

  7. Pingback: Pain and Remedies of Sharing iPads in Schools | Education (Mainly Technology Related Stuff) |

  8. Hi Mark,
    I just came across this post as part of searching how to resolve a non connecting dropbox account. We use zscaler as of late last year. zscaler also seems to stop us using dragon dictation too. Any help to help us get through in either of these apps? I think evernote is ok, but would have to check…. zscaler administration is new for us so we would appreciate any help

    • Hi Tony,
      I’ve never been able to get Dragon Dictation to work on a proxy server network. Dropbox works on iPads with zScaler as long as you add to the approved lists. We actually had an issue with Dropbox on computers. The CEO had a fix for that on their website. Not sure if you have access to that. I can find that for you if you want. Evernote is fine on iPads. If you need some info about zScaler I can email you some files we were given. Let me know and I send it to you.

  9. Since our district installed Zscaler, the only way I can access Dropbox on my school Dell laptop is by going to It no longer works from the folder I downloaded from Dropbox. Do you have any solutions to this? Thanks, Jessica

  10. Buenas tardes. Perdón por escribir en castellano, pero mi inglés no es bueno. Espero que pueda comprender, quizá con alguien que sepa español, mi pregunta.
    En el centro en el que trabajo utilizamos iPad; cada alumno tiene su iPad. Para la gestión de los dispositivos utilizamos MDM y todos los iPads pasan por el filtro Zscaler. Nuestro gran problema es que cuando ls alumnos tratan de descargarse algún archivo (en PDF o Pages…) no lo consiguen, se queda parado justo cuando está llegando al final de la descarga. Lo curioso es que les pasa a algunos alumnos y a otros no, pero otro día puede pasarle a los que el día anterior podían descargarse el archivo. Es decir, es como si diera el error de forma aleatoria (dicho de otro modo, por alguna razón que desconocemos).
    ¿Tiene usted alguna idea de lo que puede estar pasando?
    Muchas gracias

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