Think … erm … Different (part 2)

Thanks to all for the positive response to part one of the report on the Apple Birmingham Leadership Event. I have tried to continue to be as open as I can about the day, and whilst there is still considerable criticism in some parts about Apple and their strategy on technology, I hope I am giving some insight into how their tools can be used within schools. It is not intended to be a sales pitch but to give people as much information as possible to make decent evaluations on their options. I know there may be some inaccuracies in here and it is an opinion piece. Apple staff are unable to comment on it formally so if anyone who was there spots anything, please let me know.

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The afternoon also contained the Hands-on workshops and I opted for the technical strand, ably hosted and run by Chris Jinks from Apple. Out of my 5 Questions, a number of them were linked to the technical strand … not because I am a Geek, but because this seems to be one of the major areas which is a barrier to adoption of new tech. Lack of information and advice can be a key reason for failure of using any technology in an educational environment. it detracts from the benefits of the tools and the reason they are there in the first place. This is true no matter where the technology is from and is in no way Apple specific as a problem. However, the approach which Apple has taken in the past has sometimes been open for question. At a previous BETT show, Russell Dyas and myself were at the press briefing from Apple and when asked about giving more advice to schools on the technical side we were told that schools shouldn’t need to use in-house staff but buy the expertise in from ASEs and partners. That obviously went down well.

However, there is more information available to schools … if you know where to find it and who to ask. ASEs, ADEs and AASPs are still the first point of call for many areas but events like today are starting to fill in the gaps.

The session was a two-hour version of what is usually a full day training event. We knew it would be a tad sparse in some areas and Chris apologised about that, but there is a lot to squeeze in. Again, Apple like to breakdown the areas covered and look at it in the following blocks.

  • Mobility with Apple
  • Creating Content
  • Distributing Content
  • Managing Devices
  • Infrastructure for Learning

What is mobility? It is about my content. Anytime. Anywhere. Video, Audio, text, applications … things I create and consume (I was feeling like I was listening to Graham Brown-Martin from Learning Without Frontiers actually). This is about whether in a lab, at home, on the move, etc … important to remember the difference between 3G, WiFi, LAN. We looked at having to consider the broadest audience … desktops, laptops, mobile … think of who you are reaching and how. Consider the delivery mechanisms, work to standards and understand why some are moving away from certain tools. This is where the Flash-bashing started. Earlier in the day I had raised about the issues with the lack of Flash in education since there are many resources in Flash (with few plans to change from talking with some vendors) and the push is very much that Flash might have been very good once, but now is just not suitable because things like killing battery life, CPU overhead, etc. Likewise, when conversation go onto standards HTML5 was up there are the way to go … and I had to point out that it isn’t ratified, that there is the risk that it might go down a route Apple don’t want and that time / money could be wasted. However, Chris did ask what the alternative would be then … and after you rule out the use of Flash (and we can have a long discussion about Flash and open standards) there is little left to go for. As an aside, I have been party to a number of rants about how bad Flash is, especially for updating, things breaking and not being open, yet when someone decides to drop it (such as Apple or Microsoft for the Metro interface of Windows 8 ) you get an outcry of the masses … sometimes I think you just can’t win!

Back to the session though, and we looked at what were the building blocks (Text, Audio, Video) and the construction areas (podcasts, web, apps). Again, stressing the use of open formats, text comes in 2 forms – PDF and ePub. I did query (via Twitter) about whether Open Document format (ODF) should be included in there and after some research it is indeed a standard for office documents along with OOXML and even the UK Govt has previously stressed ODF and open standards should be used as a standard for sharing documents … and it has support from Apple but iWork still does not support ODF. We already know that PDF is fine when used in it’s simplest form but as soon as you start adding other objects into it (video, etc) then you are relying on additional code to make it work … and there in lies a problem. In schools it is so frustrating to receive materials as PDF from an exam board only to find you need a particular version of Adobe Reader to open it and that it will not open in any other PDF reader. This is where ePub comes into its own. It gives a greater user experience, allows for more user control such as changing font, text, colour, flexible orientation, etc. Personally I like to use Scrivener or Calibre to create ePub files. When looking at audio we talked about the importance of compression vs quality. MP3 still wins out as a format for many. For video we looked at the difference between Codecs and Containers, H.264, MPEG-4, MPEG-2 : m4v, mp4, 3gp, mov, avi, etc … and looked the simplicity of selection within the Apple toolset. Assembling all these parts together is the construction bit … and this is what makes the difference.

The Web is standards based … HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. At least these are where Apple technology is centred … mainly because it works and keeps things simple. We looked at the use of apps v web and a hybrid approach, but Chris was keen to say that Web Apps give the best method of dealing with a broad audience. We looked at using Pages to create ePubs and it does work extremely well …

Distributing content is an important factor in education still. As much as we might love the idea of user created content and co-creation as an approach within the pedagogy of your curriculum, you are pretty much guaranteed to have some content to distribute to the users / pupils / students. There are 2 ways to get content onto devices, via cable or via WiFi. Cable requires plugging in and using iTunes. This is suitable for personal or 1:1 devices but is a pig for class sets. Even setting up the small technology toolkits we have had going out to schools takes up time and I was glad that Peter Ford was doing it rather than me! I have to admit that iOS5 and Sync over WiFi has been very handy for me on my own devices … but again, that comes down to personal responsibility. When it comes to WiFi there are a number of tools for hosted shares for accessing WebDAV style solutions … WebDAV Navigator can be a handy app and many apps have tools to allow you to save to WebDAV too. I did ask about the use of iCloud and the Data Protection Act and at the moment there is no direct guidance / advice. As always with these things, if you have concerns or cannot confirm you are not covered then you should not use such services. On a personal note I think iCloud to a local server would be a good option … but I doubt we will see Apple do that for a variety of reasons, including security. The methods of ensuring that published apps are done via Apple’s services are also part of the locked down environment and I’ll leave it to iOS App Developers to give better explanations of how and why this works. As far as those deploying solutions in schools go … you are not bundling your own apps and pushing them out GPO style.

We then started to make use of a locally deployed Lion Server. This was key to how the workshop continued but with a bit of careful thinking a number of the features can be delivered via other options. We started by accessing the Wiki Server, an easy way of getting resources made available by the class teacher, in this case it was hosted on a local MacMini Server. Interestingly I was discussing the use of Wikis with Tom Rees (@trees2066) and we both agree that this is one of the best co-creation tools out there. Unfortunately, as far as I have been able to find out, Wiki access is a bit clunky still in Lion Server. If anyone has a good guide to allowing student control of the Wiki I would appreciate it.

Then we get onto controlling the devices. Yes … I know most are thinking the same I was … about time, but it really did make sense why the session followed the structure it does. You need to understand what type of resources may need to be used and how they are accessed first.

The session talked about the 3 options … the personal device (in a 1-to-1 situation), the institute owned device assigned to an individual (still 1-to-1) and the shared device. With a shared device it is a fixed setup, only admins make changes … and you have to return to base (i.e. the SysAdmins) to reset, update or redeploy.

With any 1-to-1 setup you are going to get a mix of institutional and private data. Apps could be owned by the institute (gifted?), provide updates one recovery capabilities … but there is a massive amount of user responsibility. The User is in charge, can do pretty much anything and chooses to accept the configuration to be part of the educational environment … but more on that later.

All new devices (or when devices get redeployed) have to go through 4 steps. Activate, update, configure and sync. Who will do these steps really depends on the model used. Mobile Device Management tools are key. It seems that Apple’s MDM tool actually uses the same provided sub-set of controls as the larger commercial offerings out there. There is a difference in the UI and when you buy in a commercial package you get told how it will work … I suppose this could be viewed as the same as using parts of RM’s CC3/4, which bolts on / controls aspects of Microsoft’s Active Directory.

A key aspect of using MDM though is the Certificate Signing Request. No matter what you use, this is a must (again, going back to the security mentioned earlier) and is needed as part of the Apple Push Notification Service … Security of updates of configurations is carefully thought out here … and yes, it needs to be thought out and planned, the central server / controller needs to be available … and at this point you realise that if you don’t have a central machine then you are going to struggle. If you already have an OSX Server to control any desktop / laptops from Apple … then this is where to start.

Centralised configuration can do a lot … sort out wireless settings, proxy settings, email, calendar … and much more. A number of these can also be provided on OSX Server, but you can also use other providers too. Exchange is big one in many schools now, but I have recently seen a setup accessing a hosted Sharepoint / Exchange solution from a VLE provider too. But back to the configuration … One important thing to remember … you cannot stop people removing apps via the central configuration, it is a setting you have to do on the local machine (Settings > General > Restrictions … then Enable Restrictions and turn Deleting Apps off).

The main config tool you will come across is the iPhone Configuration Utility to create Profiles of how devices will be configured. These are then initially pushed to connected devices (via cable) or pulled by the user. This is where OSX Server comes into play. The same box running the Wiki Server also enables devices to connect to a configuration service. Pretty simple really. Set up a guest wifi in your school which only gives you access to the config server. Connect to the server via a web page. Pull down the config (if you are allowed too … security starts with User Authentication) by authenticating, install the provided certificate and then the encrypted config comes down over the air. The details of what can be controlled via the iPhone Config Utility are covered in detail in Apple’s documentation and there is quite a bit covered there. This new config can then have the *real* WiFi network settings in it.

Those of you who have experience of dealing with .plist files for controlling Apple OSX devices via WGM or .adm files for GPOs will not be surprised that the settings are just XML strings … but the config tools do all the work for you.

The session showed some examples of over the air changes. We had YouTube running … and then it was gone. The app closed and was then gone from the device. Access to particular WebApps / resources pushed out as weblinks. Device access to OSX Server provided WebDAV used to show uploading of pictures and documents created in Apple apps such as Pages.

The session really did only touch the tip of the iceberg, and I think that even doing a full day would not cover all the questions many of us would have. Like many things, it would only be after a few weeks of hands-on testing of a deployment that we would have a good idea about the full extent of what can and can’t be done, the different places you have to go to to make changes, the extent to which Apple security controls so many things … and so we come onto the positives and limitations of central deployment.

I’m not going to strictly put them in order, because so many are linked.

The ability to have some control is needed and what you get is kept as simple as possible. This keeps the background load on the device pretty low, which has the positive affect of longer battery life, etc … let’s face it, we have all moaned at some point about the load AV software or certain middleware applies to devices … and it also means that there is less chance of conflicts of settings. The limitation is that you have to operate within boundaries of the tools and settings you have … you can’t suddenly think of a new tool or setting. If the option is to turn YouTube off then that is what you have … not just limit it to particular sections. For that you have to use another tool such as a proxy server / filtering solution. You can’t stick remote monitoring tools on there such as you might have on desktops (Impero, NetOp, AB Tutor Control) or the security key loggers (Securus, Policy Central) as this is not what it is designed for.

As a device which can be personalised you also have to accept that the user can choose to turn of your centralised controls. If they do then they loose access to all those settings you have loaded onto the device … the wireless, the email, weblinks, etc. Now, I know many will be screaming at the screen right now about that being useless in class environment … the disruption as yet another student needs to go to see IT Support to get things fixed … but surely this is just another bit of classroom management. If a child doesn’t turn up with the right PE kit, or damages equipment in Design Technology … then surely it is a discipline issue, not the problem of the equipment / technology. And yes, it does go back to what has been mentioned before about carefully thinking about which model you are going to use.

Personally, I can see a class set of iPads only really being usable if there is an OSX Server device in the same room and accessed by the class teacher. There will be some admin tasks around this and I can see that being a problem due to some restrictions about how much tech support / admin teachers should be doing. I think you do need this personal access to the OSX Server too as this will be a key tool for providing access to resources and pushing things to the devices. I do also worry about how files / resources on a class set of devices would be tidied up / cleaned out. This needs a bit more thought and planning really. In a 1-to-1 scheme this is the responsibility of the user, and you could say that tidying up the device could be seen as an activity by the child in the same way they would tidy up the classroom before leaving a lesson … but we all know things get missed. All it would take would be for one naughty child to find a dodgy picture or, probably even worse, take an unsuitable picture and maliciously leave it for someone else (another child) to find. This is not just a concern I have about Apple devices … far from it, I worry about the misuse of any handheld device … and the lack of pretty much any control on Android devices worry me even more. We’ll have to just see what happens when Windows 8 comes out too, but based on previous experience of working with Microsoft tools … I think this will be a bit more thought out.

So, a summary.

iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads can be centrally controlled in an educational environment. It is best designed for a 1-to-1 scheme rather than class sets, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work and work well. No matter what model you choose you will have to think carefully about how you want to deliver the curriculum, how you will push out access to resources, how you will change some of the school procedures to take into account the growing use of handheld devices and this really does mean thinking about how classroom management will deal with things rather than relying on technology to fix things for you. You need to look at how you deploy and control your wireless networks.

I would honestly recommend anyone looking at either class-sets or 1-to-1 schemes to talk with other schools already doing it. You must also talk with at least one Apple Solutions Expert or AASP. They will help you with access to Apple Distinguished Educators who can work with you to think about your curriculum to make the most of the investment made in the kit. It is not just about the cost of the equipment alone.

ASEs will also help you access other things too … including things like information / support from Apple Financial Services. If you are serious about going to a 1-to-1 scheme then the finances need to be carefully thought about. I have seen too many 1-to-1 schemes fail on that aspect or fail on the curriculum design.

There are plenty of good resources on the Apple site to go through (some already linked) and the case studies make interesting reading … and with enough time in-house staff will be able to deliver good, workable and stable solutions … but I would still like to see a comprehensive guide as to how to deliver this. However, we have already covered how Apple tend to deliver things … and, being honest, the expertise of ASEs is usually worth the investment in time and money.

One thought on “Think … erm … Different (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Managing iPads in school? - Page 2

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