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iOS App Management

A principal from a neighboring school recently asked for our thoughts on iOS app management, so I have written down some of what we are learning and some of the things we feel are important to consider. We, along with most other schools, are still unsure about what is the best way forward, so we still have more questions than we have answers, but at least we are starting to be able to articulate the questions.

Apple does not currently make their educational Volume Purchase Program available outside of the US. There are some schools (with some sort of US business address) that have been able to get Apple to approve them for a business volume licensing program. This apparently does not include any volume discounts. At a recent tech conference in HK, the regional Apple rep assured a large group of educators that Apple would be rolling out the Volume Purchase Program internationally. (I’ve had the opportunity to speak with high-level Apple reps a few times over the years, so although I’m optimistic, I won’t hold my breath.)

This same rep suggested that schools could (and do) currently manage purchases by creating a unique Apple ID for each device and then use the “app gifting” feature (not gift card) to “gift” all the necessary apps to each of the devices. This recommendation was greeted with skepticism by the majority of those in attendance, because of the difficulty of managing so many user IDs, however, with iOS5 it is not necessary to plug the devices into iTunes to sync or update, so after the initial setup, it wouldn’t be that difficult. This method does have some benefits if the devices are going to be used by individuals or a static group (e.g. one class rather than checked out across the school).

Some schools have decided not to try to purchase multiple licenses of apps for each device. The justification is that Apple does not provide a way to do what they want and if they had to pay for each license, then they wouldn’t be buying those apps at all. Other schools, seem like they really would like to pay for each app if only Apple would give them an easy way to do it. One school has gone so far as to set up all iPads with one ID and then purchase the apps repeatedly using “dummy” IDs that they never actually use. (This is not technically all that different from how Apple’s volume licensing program works.) There are also some other 3rd-party management solutions such as Airwatch, but our school has not researched them because of the high cost involved.

Some schools have decided that, until Apple provides a more workable solution, they will only use free apps. There’s lots of great stuff out there, so it is possible. The added advantage is that this allows the school to use the Apple Configurator software which requres the Volume Purchase Program to install paid apps. Then again, we’ve already fallen in love with quite a few paid apps and we would be reluctant to give them up.

The trials we have had thus far have suggested that using the devices 1:1 or shared by the same group of students for a extended period of time really helps leverage some of the power of the device in ways that sharing/checking them out to various groups does not: The file-system is set up as a single user environment and being able to have the device logged into all of a student or class’s online/cloud services (Youtube, Picasa, Blog etc.) makes quickly creating and publishing material a breeze. When the devices are set up more generically, then they are more limited to the consumption of media rather than the creation of it.

Finally, regardless of the scheme devices for managing IDs and apps, there is the question of who manages the apps. At NIST, despite our large IT staff that normally handles computer setup, the Elementary ICT department has requested to manage the process in order to understand the possibilities and pedagogical ramifications of each configuration. This has been time consuming, but one of the great values of the iPad is that it is not a particularly technical device and the closer management of it is in relation to the student, the higher the likelihood that it will be an effective learning tool. Teachers who are given some responsibility of managing the apps are thus empowered to use the device just as they would any other classroom resource (researching, customizing, experimenting etc).

So that’s the basic groundwork. If anyone has leads on some more authoritative app management protocol, I’m all ears.