Yesterday, I got Apple Classroom up and running at school thanks to the release of Casper 9.9, which supports the new features of iOS 9.3. Here are some early impressions. I'll mostly focus on the technology and how well it works, rather than how effective it is for teaching since I've only had a day or so to play with it.
There are some missing features and issues in this first release (low frame rate for screen monitoring or the use of Bluetooth, for instance), but it sounds like Apple shipped a solid foundation for Classroom on iOS 9.3.
One of the core changes of iOS 9.3 is Education, and a big part of the updated framework is the Classroom app. Apple has now released Classroom on the App Store, and it's a free download for iPads running iOS 9.3.
Classroom is a powerful new iPad app that helps you guide learning, share work, and manage student devices. It supports both shared and one-to- one environments. You can launch a specific app, website, or textbook page on any device in the class, or share student work on a TV, monitor, or projector using Apple TV. You can even reset a student’s password, see which apps students are working in, and assign a specific Shared iPad for each class.
Apple also published a PDF document detailing the features of Classroom, including Shared iPad and Screen View. You can read it here.
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.
Karan Varindani has a great story about the role of the iPad Pro in his college studies, and how he's been consolidating his textbooks, notes, and more into a portable, digital workflow:
I saved writing about my experience doing Linear Algebra homework for last because it is, by far, my favorite anecdote about the iPad Pro. I usually have the assignment sheet open on my Mac in front of me, the textbook open on my iPad to my left, and sheets of A4 paper scattered everywhere else on my desk. I first go through the assignment, making lots of mistakes along the way, then rewrite everything again neatly on the second run. Next, I scan the 10–15 pages to my Mac, merge them into a single PDF document, and upload them to the course server. The entire process takes about 3–4 hours depending on the number of questions assigned and leaves me with a pulsing wrist every time. Last week, I did the entire assignment on the iPad Pro. I had both Notability and PDF Expert open in Split View; the former was a blank canvas where I wrote down my answers and the latter had both the assignment and textbook open in tabs. I was able to erase mistakes as I made them and I didn’t have to scan anything afterwards, both of which saved me a tremendous amount of time. I uploaded the document in Safari using iCloud Drive when I was done.
Almost immediately after I got the confirmation email, I decided that I wasn’t going to be returning the iPad Pro.
A good primer for those who argue that the iPad is only being used by tech bloggers – with a fair assessment of the Pro's portability trade-offs.
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?
Benjamin Mayo, writing for 9to5Mac:
Apple is today launching its Back to School promotion for 2015. This year, it will give away a free pair of Beats Solo2 headphones with the purchase of an eligible Mac. Customers must either purchase an iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or Mac Pro with education pricing to qualify, including build-to-order configurations. The Mac mini does not participate in the deal.
Somewhat curious that Apple isn't including iPad purchases in this year's promotion (they have in previous years). An iPad is, in theory, a great device for students and education purposes. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see more of a push next year after new iPads and iOS 9, and the cheapest Mac starts at $899, not $299 like an iPad mini 2. Beats headphones are a pretty good deal.
The iTunes U release cycle is long - too long, I would argue - but it does tend to bring good results when releases do arrive. iTunes U 2.0 brought us Course Manager on iPad. iTunes U 3.0 brings us a whole new document submission and grading workflow that is easily as good as anything that currently exists.
Good overview of iTunes U 3.0 by Fraser Speirs (who knows a thing or two about iPads in the classroom).
Apple has launched a major update to iTunes U for iOS today, bringing features to simplify homework management for students and grading for teachers. Dawn Chmielewski, writing for Re/code:
With this latest version of Apple’s educational software, students will be able to turn in homework from their tablets; these documents will carry a timestamp recording when the student submits term papers, book reports and other work. An integrated grade book will alert teachers when a student’s work is complete and ready for review, or if it’s time to send a reminder.
Interestingly, Apple's updated iTunes U webpage shows a PDF markup feature similar to the one coming in iOS 9. And, “students can hand-in their homework from any Apple creativity app and dozens of third-party apps” – this seems to be based on an extension that communicates with the iTunes U app.
Last, a few notes from Fraser Speirs: