Right at the end of the WWDC 2016 keynote, Apple announced Swift Playgrounds. This is a new app from Apple that is designed to allow children to learn to program on an iPad. This is a first from Apple and a major advance for iOS as a platform.
I was fortunate to be awarded an educator scholarship to WWDC 2016 and was privileged to be in the audience at the announcement. While attending the conference, I was able to speak with many of the engineers and educators working on Swift Playgrounds and gain an insight into what the software is capable of and the reasons why it was built.
The off-cycle release of major new features in iOS 9.3 is quite a departure for Apple. The usual cycle until now has been for major releases to debut at WWDC in the summer and ship in September/October. For the education market, however, this schedule has been extremely difficult to deal with. School usually starts in August or September - in the northern hemisphere at least - and having a major platform upgrade happen right after school starts is hard to cope with.
That has all been turned on its head. On January 11th, Apple announced the developer beta release of iOS 9.3. Unusually for a developer beta, Apple also produced the kind of iOS preview webpages that are normally seen in the time between the WWDC announcement of a new major iOS version and its eventual release.
Since the early days of iOS, Apple has always made it relatively easy to configure iOS devices to meet the needs of managed deployments in schools, businesses, and other mass-deployment situations. Heck, even the good old iPod Classic had a "museum mode" that could lock down the device to show specific notes on the screen while audio played.
Over the past few years, iOS deployment has become more 'professionalised' – which might be a euphemism for 'complicated'. Honestly, all mass computer deployment is deeply complex when you get down to it. The best systems automate almost everything. iOS deployment, as it has developed in recent years, has tended to keep most of the moving parts close to the surface. These parts have been difficult or impossible to automate and easy to overlook or forget. That would be fine if most of these parts were optional, but they're not.
The main parts of an iOS deployment are a Mobile Device Management server for configuring and tracking your devices, the Volume Purchase Program for bulk-buying apps from the App Store, and the user of the device having an Apple ID.
When Apple launched the Volume Purchase Program, they introduced the ability for administrators to assign apps to users' Apple IDs, rather than to devices. This also introduced the requirement that every device have a single, identifiable user who has a working Apple ID.
This was quite a good idea in the early days of iOS in the enterprise. These were days when users were bringing their own iOS devices to work and businesses had to make apps available to them. It wasn't such a good idea for more centrally-managed deployments where the use of the device was perhaps more task-oriented than user-oriented. Think: supermarket employee who picks up one of twenty available iPads to do stock control. It also wasn't great for schools, where many users didn't have Apple IDs and there were no tools for bulk creation of said accounts.
I would love to tell you that iOS 9 fixes all of these problems. Unfortunately, I can't tell you that. What iOS 9 does is fix one problem while introducing another.
I have been deploying and teaching with iOS in a 1:1 school for five full years now. A 1:1 school is a school where each student is provided with a computer in some form for their exclusive use. We started with the original iPad in August 2010 and now, five years later, are getting ready to refresh from our current 4th-generation retina iPad to whatever is current next summer.
Over these past five years, we have seen iPad develop from an interesting device with some useful desktop-like apps in the iWork suite to a very powerful platform for student learning and creativity.
I have often said that the iPad hardware matters only insofar as it enables you to have an excellent experience of software. Tablets and smartphones are as close as we can practically get to a pure software experience. This is one of the reasons why iPhone and iPad hardware is firstly so minimalist and secondly hasn't changed much in all the years they have been sold. What matters about the iPad is that it makes the software fast, smooth, and powerful.
We have seen many more changes in iPad software than we have in the hardware. We started with iOS 3.2 – a version before even multitasking arrived on iOS – and we are now looking at iOS 9. So what does iOS 9 bring for education?
In the school where I teach, we are now into our fifth school year using iPad in the classroom. We have students from 5-18 using the device and using it very differently according to their age and educational needs. We have found it to be a substantial addition to the life and work of our school and a major enhancement to the educational process.
Unlike many schools, we don’t focus on “delivering content” with the iPad. We don’t use electronic textbooks and we don’t buy a lot of curriculum materials in the form of apps. Instead, we view the iPad as a tool for creativity in the classroom. We think of apps not as replacements for books but as a new kind of pen, pencil, ruler, paintbrush, camera, music studio, art material, scientific log book, homework diary, writing pad and movie editing suite.
We have used every version of iOS since iOS 3.2 on the original iPad. Many releases have brought substantial improvements in our daily use of the iPad – for example multitasking in iOS 4 or AirPlay Mirroring in iOS 5 on the iPad 2. I think we are on course for the most substantial change to iOS since it shipped on the iPad this year.
iOS 8 brings many deep changes and improvements to the platform that we know and love to use in our school. I want to highlight a few of them, but it’s important to remember that sometimes the biggest wins are in the fixes to the small daily annoyances.