The Apple Watch at Work and Play

I've been wearing an Apple Watch Sport (black, 42mm) since I received it about two weeks after the first models shipped. I haven't written about it here because it's something that I think requires time to approach an understanding of how it fits into daily life and use.

In the time since I got the watch I've been at work, travelled away from home during the summer holidays and am now back to work again for the new term. I was reminded that I wanted to write this when I noticed how dirty my watch had become from my constantly interacting with it during the day.

One of the things about the life and work of a teacher is that, firstly, your day is highly scheduled. There are rarely more than a couple of hours in a working day where your use of time is not dictated to you. The second thing is that you live and die by your management of a hundred small things to do, tell people, collect, hand out, look for or send for.

Before I get into my thoughts about what the Watch is good for, I think we should acknowledge something: it is a complete nonsense that Apple ever shipped an operating system where in about 3 in 5 tries, an app simply will not launch. To me, this is the glaring flaw in Apple Watch: apps need to be instantly available at all times and respond quickly. Otherwise, what's the point? If it's not quicker than reaching for the phone, why bother?

I'm putting a lot of faith in watchOS 2.0 to fix this problem. I hope it's not misplaced.

The Apple Watch is many different things to many different people. For some, it's a fitness tracker or a media remote control. For me, the Apple Watch has been two very distinct devices depending on whether I'm at work or on holiday.

Apple Watch at Play

I found a few use cases for Apple Watch that were surprisingly useful when on holidays. Travel apps such as Citymapper, Passbook and British Airways were all excellent to have on the watch. Tripadvisor and Foursquare are both useful and functional apps that make sense to have on the watch.

I drive an electric car and there are apps that let you quickly find nearby car chargers. Very useful when away from home.

It seems to me that many of these handy apps are those that require zero input. They use your location and show you things close by. Other apps that I tried on my travels were not so useful and many of them were apps that wanted input on the watch. Currency converters, for example, were finicky to use when trying to tap in amounts on the watch itself. Many apps suffered from slow control response, so typing was nothing like as fast or accurate as on, say, an iPhone or iPad.

I find myself using different watch faces for work and leisure - even going so far as to switch watch faces when I'm done with work for the day. At home or travelling, I like Color or Utility. When I'm really, really, relaxing I might even be so chill as to use the Solar or Motion faces. That's when you know I'm really checking out.

As for leisure complications, I like to have the Weather, World Clock showing US Eastern time (my podcast partner Bradley's time zone) and the Timer. I use the timer constantly. Whether it's timing my kids doing something or making sure I don't forget to "put the dinner on in 30 minutes", the timer complication is on every face I use.

I've also found the voice recognition to be really poor. I slightly suspect that I may have minor water damage in my watch because the speaker doesn't sound as clear as it used to either. Perhaps that's also affected the microphone, which is affecting the quality of recognition. That said, when you're surrounded by children making constant noise, it's not a great environment for dictation of any kind.

Apple Watch at Work

While the Apple Watch is a nice-to-have in leisure times, I have found it to be indispensable at work. The range of things I use it for is narrower, but the extent to which I depend on it is far more significant.

There are three main things that I need from the Watch at work.

Firstly, my calendar. I have that front and centre on my Modular watch face. It does a great job of telling me which class is coming next and having the entire day just a single tap away on the face is a revelation.

Secondly, email notifications. At our school, a lot of "general awareness" emails go out during the day. A pupil will be late; a pupil has gone home; something has happened. These all show up by email. We're a small school, so it's generally the case that we want all teachers to know about this stuff. The fact that I can read that tiny snippet of information on my watch and then delete it from my inbox is my killer app for the watch.

The last thing that I depend on in school is other reminders. I use both Due and OmniFocus for this. OmniFocus is my medium- and long-range GTD tool of choice. Due is there for other frequent timed reminders. For example, I have a reminder daily at 8.30am that tells me to post all my iTunes U posts for the day and another at 4.10pm that reminds me to update my planner with the events of the day.

My Apple Watch is an awareness amulet. It's a small-scale organisational superpower and I would not want to teach a day without it again.

The Force Touch Trackpad

I recently upgraded to a new 13" MacBook Pro from a 2012 13" MacBook Air. Everything, of course, is several generations newer and faster. The retina display is amazing, the SSD is 2x faster on write and 3x faster on read, the CPU is substantially faster too.

The thing I want to rave about, though, is the Force Touch trackpad. This thing is seriously, seriously brilliant and, in my opinion, a subtle but significant step forward in the Mac experience.

Most of the reviews you'll read about the trackpad go on about the technical implementation of the haptic click effect and how it "really feels like a click". This is totally true, but it wildly misses the point about how Force Touch changes the interaction with your Mac.

Let's back up a bit. Trackpads have always been basically a rearrangement of the mouse. In early days, the trackpad didn't move and there were physical buttons. With the unibody MacBook Pro and the multi-touch trackpad, Apple hinged the trackpad itself and eliminated the button. This wasn't that much of a change; it just put the button under the bottom edge of the trackpad.

In both designs of trackpad, to perform any kind of click-and-drag, you still had to make a gesture which involved pointing, clicking and holding with the thumb, and moving the pointer with another finger.

In later versions of Mac OS X, around the time of the release of the desktop Magic Trackpad, Apple introduced a three-finger drag gesture that allowed you to tap with three fingers and move to perform a drag.

On a Mac with a Force Touch trackpad, I discovered, that setting is gone. And I was really mad about it! I've been using that gesture for years! How can they take it away? Well, it turns out that you don't need it any more.

My big insight into the Force Touch trackpad is that you never need to use your thumb for clicking - ever. The reason we used the thumb was because the click was only effective in the lower quarter of the trackpad due to the hinge. As long as your tracking speed is set high enough that you can go from one side of the screen to the other in one movement, you can just use your pointing finger.

If you think about it, this really takes the Mac another step closer to more direct manipulation of objects on screen. Once you realise that you can genuinely click with your pointing finger equally anywhere on the trackpad, you can get the sense that dragging something in Keynote on the Mac is a lot more like dragging something in Keynote on iPad: point to it, press on it, move your finger instead of "point to it, click a button with your thumb, hold it, move your pointing finger, release your thumb, release your pointing finger".

I really love the Force Touch trackpad. Once I flipped the switch in my brain, it has been a really nice upgrade. Yes, I'm unlearning decades of muscle memory, but when I started to just think about it like an iPhone, it became incredibly fast and fluid to use. It might be the first trackpad that's as fast and precise as a mouse.

What's new in iTunes U 3.0

iTunes U 3.0 has just shipped, so what's new? The answer, as is usual with iTunes U, is a small number of big features. Before I list them, it's worth taking a moment to survey the landscape as it existed prior to this release.

The venerable Showbie (sponsor of my podcast) has long been the go-to assignment submission tool for iPad classrooms. It offered class groups, assignments within those classes, the ability to annotate documents and provide private teacher-to-pupil comments as well as shared class folders.

The newcomer, which has already been impressive, is Google Classroom. Google Classroom is focused on assignment setting, submission and grading. It currently does not have quite the same kind of "course content" features as iTunes U (course outlines, posts, etc.). It does have strong integration with Google Docs, Drive and YouTube. Classroom is a new product and, as such, has a few rough edges to work off. That said, Classroom is a massive boon for Chromebook schools and, until iTunes U 3.0, was also useful for iOS schools. The Classroom iOS app is nowhere near powerful enough yet but it does let you do the basics.

Prior to version 3.0, iTunes U was a very competent teacher-to-student content delivery platform. It allowed teachers to specify the outline of their course, provide posts with content in them, upload materials in various formats and create assignments that students could be notified of.

The one thing that iTunes U didn't do was deal with the inbound half of the assignment workflow. Google Classroom came along and proved that this was important enough to be a major plank of the first-party solution, and now we have iTunes U 3.0.

Key Features

iTunes U 3.0 brings three key features to the platform:

  • Assignment submission, grading and feedback.
  • Per-assignment private communication between instructors and students
  • A unified course grade book for all assignments given in the course

I'll look at each of these in more detail.

Assignment Creation

iTunes U now supports assignment grading, submission and feedback. The new features support many different types of assessment. The teacher will create the assignment as normal, but there are now three additional fields in the assignment creation window.

The "Enable Grading" switch opens another field where the teacher can set the maximum mark for the assignment. The second switch enables file submission to this assignment.

Various combinations of these switches cover a wide range of common assessment situations in the classroom.

For a task which is not graded, such as an optional or extension task, disable both switches. No grade will be recorded and no files can be submitted, but the student will still see it in their assignment lists.

Assignment Creation Options

Assignment Creation Options

For those tasks which are graded but for which there is no concrete digital artefact created, such as a performance or presentation: enable grading but disable file submission. This will allow the teacher to enter a grade and engage in private dialogue with the student without allowing the student to upload files. The teacher could video or photograph the student or complete a PDF rubric and return that material privately to the student as an attachment in the private message thread.

For a task that requires submission but isn't graded: enable the submission switch but not the grading switch. This could be useful for situations where a teacher has to gather evidence of something being done but does not need to award a specific mark for it beyond "it exists". This could be powerful for check-pointing or draft submission tasks, where the teacher sets specific deadlines for the student to show progress but the grading isn't done until the final submission. In this way, iTunes U could be used as a kind of learning log.

The likely most common task - one that requires a submission to be graded - enable both switches.

I think, overall, these four types of assignment cover many of the situations that teachers find themselves in when assessing student work.

Assignment Submission

Students can submit work to an assignment in one of three ways:

  • They can use Open In to send a file from any app to iTunes U. They are then presented with a picker to choose the appropriate assignment. This is very familiar to anyone who has used Showbie or Google Classroom.
  • iTunes U supports Document Provider extensions. This means that any cloud service app that has a document provider extension can present its files right inside iTunes U and the student can pick from there. In practice I was able to pick a file from Google Drive and submit it for an assignment without leaving iTunes U.
  • If the assignment has a PDF attached, say a document to be filled in, the student can mark up the PDF right inside iTunes U and return it to the teacher.

It is possible that a student may occasionally not perform to the best of their ability. In such circumstances a teacher may wish to ask fair a re-submission. As long as the assignment is still unlocked, the student can re-submit a new document. The old submission remains in the private message thread but a new one is added afterwards.

PDF Markup

iTunes U now contains a basic PDF markup tool. It allows pen drawing, with a selection of line thickness and colours but not transparency; a definite oversight for highlighting on top of documents. The markup tool also allows text entry with a choice of five fonts, colour, a size slider, alignment and borders on the text box.

PDF Markup Tools - Teacher View

PDF Markup Tools - Teacher View

I would liked to have seen text box presets in here - commonly used combinations of size, font, border and colour that would carry specific meaning in a marking scheme. I was initially confused that there is apparently no eraser tool for the pen, although there is an undo. It was later pointed out to me that you can tap on any annotation - whether text or pen - and delete or duplicate it from the black edit bar.

I was initially under the impression that all PDFs are flattened on submission. This is not actually true. It is possible for a student to save an editable copy of their markup, but this must be done manually before submission. There are two buttons in the PDF markup UI: "Hand In" and "Save". If the student opens the teacher-provided PDF, edits and taps Hand In, the document is flattened, submitted and closed. There is no opportunity to save the document in an editable state. On the other hand, if the student opens the teacher-provided PDF, edits, taps Save, and then taps Hand In, the document will be submitted flattened and also saved in an editable state. Honestly, this is so annoying and non-obvious I'm assuming it's a bug in iTunes U (I've filed it as #21569632.

Grading

I'm really pleased that iTunes U has gone a step beyond Google Classroom in doing a better job of providing a course-wide grade book. In Classroom, you have to go into each assignment individually to see the scores, but iTunes U contains a really well done grading dashboard.

Grading Dashboard

Grading Dashboard

This view does so many things. Let's get into them.

  • Firstly, students are represented by rows and assignments are the columns.
  • Tapping on a row header allows you to focus the row down to that particular student. This is a very good data protection feature if you were using this screen at a parent conference.
  • Tapping on a column header brings an assignment status popover. This popover shows the progress of the assignment in terms of how many have been handed in, how many graded and how many returned. If you have graded some or all of the submissions, this popover also allows you to return all draft grades at once.
  • Tapping on a cell opens the private message thread between the teacher and the student. Assignments can be accessed here.

The appearance of a specific cell changes as students work through the assignment:

  • A dash in the cell indicates the student has not yet looked at the assignment.
  • The cell will show "viewed" when the student has read the assignment.
  • The cell will show a document icon when something has been submitted to the assignment.
  • A number in the cell indicates the teacher's grade for the assignment. It is shown in light italics if it's a draft grade and solid regular text if the grade has been returned.
  • If a student has made a comment in the private thread, a blue dot will appear in the cell and in the assignment header.

Assignments can be locked, and locked assignments can be hidden or shown. Locking can be done manually from the header popover. As far as I can tell right now, assignments do not automatically lock when their deadline passes.

It is also possible to export the entire course's data from the marking dashboard as a CSV, which is a great way to archive the data or start working on a mark report.

Private Student Communication

Every assignment in iTunes U carries a private communication channel with every student in the course. Students and teachers can chat in this channel as well as post pictures, videos and documents.

Teachers and students can attach documents to the private communication channel

Teachers and students can attach documents to the private communication channel

This channel is how the document submission is implemented. Submissions are just special file attachments on the private message channel. Teachers can also send documents back to students this way. This might be particularly useful in situations where one or more of the digital artefacts that result from the work is actually generated by the teacher. For example, the teacher might video a student's performance or complete a marking rubric based on the student's work and return that document to them privately through this channel.

The private message channel supports document provider extensions so you can pull straight from Google Drive, Dropbox, Box or iCloud Drive.

The private message channel supports document provider extensions so you can pull straight from Google Drive, Dropbox, Box or iCloud Drive.

Limitations

There are a few limitations on this current release, but not many.

While the teacher gets a very usable marking dashboard for the course, the student gets no such overview of their grades (bug: #21569689).

There is no mechanism for a teacher to see an overview of a student across courses. This would be ideal for guidance staff and, in principle, the student's Apple ID could be the primary key (bug: #21570607).

There is no mechanism for limiting the number or type of files a student can submit for an assignment. In some scenarios, that's totally OK. Maybe the submission is composed of multiple items. On the other hand, I would very much like to be able to force the students to submit either a PDF or another specific kind of file (bug: #21570640).

There's no mechanism for automatically locking an assignment when the deadline has passed (bug: #21570691).

The marking dashboard does not calculate any max, min or average stats for the class (bug: #21569771.

Attachments in the private message channel are seemingly never cached on the device. I posted a 25MB movie to a student and the student had to wait for it to download entirely every time they wanted to play it. It couldn't be streamed, apparently. This might be a rather hard limit on the scalability of this feature. Hard to imagine a 250MB feedback video being watched much if the latency is that high (bug: #21570782).

Bugs

Assignments with submission but no grade can only be submitted to via open in. Students can add photos to the discussion but that doesn't count as submission. Effectively you can't submit from Photos to an assignment that does not have a grade, because Photos does not support Open In. A task which is graded and has a hand in can be submitted to from the paper clip. This is different to ungraded assignments. (bug: #21569879)

If a student opens a PDF, marks it up and then immediately submits, the annotations are flattened and then lost. It is possible to save the PDF with editable annotations but this has to be done manually. The student has to manually save the edited version before handing in. (bug: #21569632)

Conclusion

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.

In the post-iPhone 6 Plus era, I remain more than a wee bit disappointed that the Course Manager component is not available on the iPhone despite iTunes U being a universal app. Students can submit files and participate in private messaging with teachers from an iPhone, but the PDF markup tools are not available to either teachers or students on a phone.

When you look at it as a whole, though, iTunes U is clearly the most complete native mobile learning platform there is right now. Showbie has done stellar work for years on the document submission aspect of the problem. Google Classroom, too, has attacked the hill from that side.

iTunes U started with the courses, the materials and the learning content. Now it adds the assignment submission and grading components too. When you take that all together, nothing else comes close as a complete solution for delivering a course on iOS.

MDM Structure Design for the Long Term

As we come up to the end of the school year, it's a good time to reflect on the administrative tasks we do in order to get ready for the next school year. One area of deployment that's been on my mind recently is structuring our Mobile Device Management (MDM) server to be easy to maintain in the long run.

This is one area in which, thus far, I have not done a great job.

We started with our MDM in August 2013. This was before the Volume Purchase Program Managed Distribution approach was available to us. We converted to VPP-MD in August 2014 and that approach has been highly successful in reducing to near-zero the amount of time iPads are removed from service in the classroom to be updated and have new apps installed.

Having said that, the internal structure of our MDM is not in great shape. In this article I'll explain the mistakes I made and come to some conclusions about how we're going to do things differently in the future.

I'll be writing with reference to the Casper Suite by JAMF, since that's what we use at Cedars. Full disclosure, JAMF also sponsor my podcast.

The Aspects of a Modern MDM

In the VPP-MD era, a Mobile Device Management server essentially has two major entities: mobile devices and users. Mobile devices can have configuration profiles applied and users can have apps assigned.

When we started with MDM, we only had mobile devices. There were no user objects in the Casper Suite. To install apps for the primary school, we brought the iPads back to base and used Apple Configurator. This process typically took a couple of hours a week. For the secondary school, we used Casper to make VPP Coupon Codes available to the students in Casper's Self Service app - effectively, but not technically, a "private App Store".

In some ways this old model was easier: you enrolled devices and assigned both configuration profiles and apps to those devices. In the VPP-MD era, you assign devices to users, assign configuration profiles to devices and assign apps to users. This is far more flexible but, in a one-device-per-person model, it appears to be complexity for the sake of it. It makes tons more sense if you understand that one user might have many devices.

The Mess

Basically, I have two problems with our MDM:

  • I made groups for specific classes - as they were in 2013. That means that this year, I'm still managing groups that have names one year out of date.
  • I have way too many ad-hoc groups for various quick hacks around the above structure.

Casper allows you to have two groupings of devices and four of users:

  • Static Mobile Device Groups
  • Smart Mobile Device Groups
  • Static User Groups
  • Smart User Groups
  • Buildings (for devices)
  • Departments (for devices)

These smart groups are dynamic groups composed of users or devices who meet specified criteria.

Further, two distinct objects can be "scoped" to these six collection types:

  • Sets of apps, called VPP Assignments, can be scoped to individual users or to user groups, whether smart or static.
  • Configuration Profiles can be scoped to individual mobile devices, smart or static mobile device groups, buildings or departments.

Finally, Casper allows you to create "extended attributes" for both mobile devices and users. These are custom key/value pairs that you can add to either record type. All my User objects have an EA named "Class" that describes the class they are in.

At the moment, I have apps scoped to smart user groups. These user groups are generated by users' Class EA matching a specific value.

Secondly, I have configuration profiles scoped to a mixture of different things. I started in 2013 by defining each class through the "department" attribute on the device, so I hit some classes by scoping Configuration profiles to their 2013-14 department. I also later created some static device groups named "2014-15 Primary 7" to distinguish it from the "2013-14 Primary 7" that is encoded in the device's department attribute.

This is, as you might imagine, a bit of a mess:

  • There are too many steps to put a device into the "right" group for all the settings they need to have.
  • A device needs to have its department set to its user's class - as it would have been in session 2013-14.
  • The device might also need to be manually added to a static group representing the correct class for 2014-15.
  • The User needs to have their Class EA set correctly.
  • It's hard to determine the impact of assigning a profile to a given group or class.

In all of this, the biggest problem is that all these groups change their composition each year. If classes are departments, all the users change department once a year. That's too much churn.

The Future Model for Configuration Profiles

I've taken this opportunity to re-think what we really need in terms of MDM control of app assignment and configuration profile distribution.

One of the first things that I've come to realise is that our deployment of configuration profiles is fairly stable. We have the following profiles that essentially everyone gets:

  • Deploy a web clip linking to CEOP
  • A subscription to the school's calendar feed
  • Restrict iMessage and Facetime
  • Disable shared photo streams
  • Require passcode
  • Restrict in-app purchase
  • Prevent installing profiles
  • Prevent account changes

Almost everyone gets these profiles and they very rarely change. We also apply a couple of security profiles through Apple Configurator that limit apps to 12+ and disable downloading movies and TV shows.

In the past, it was necessary to have class-specific device groups as that was also how you scoped the distribution of VPP coupon codes.

In the future, I think class-specific device groups will be less necessary. I will probably just have one main device group named "All Managed iPads" and scope these configuration profiles to that group. If anyone needs to be excluded from these groups, Casper has a 'limitations' feature that allows me to specify "everyone in A excluding B", which computes the relative complement of the two sets of users A and B.

There are also a few configuration profiles that I keep up my sleeve in case I need them. Mainly, these are "Disable Camera" and "Disable App Store". These are rarely deployed except as a disciplinary measure. For these profiles, Casper allows me to target them to individual devices. They're never targeted at entire groups.

The Future Model for VPP Assignments

The model of grouping users for VPP assignments is harder. It's harder for several reasons:

  • Students move classes each year
  • Apps are usually a requirement of classes, rather than of students.
  • Students can, from time to time, change class mid-year.
  • The set of apps assigned to a class changes over the course of the year, usually by addition of new apps.
  • Classes are sometimes composite classes of two year groups together and a teacher might only want an app for the upper or lower half of their class.

My plan, right now, looks like this:

  • An "everybody" group, to which our core apps are assigned.
  • An Extension Attribute on each user that is not their "class" but their year of graduation, which is more stable.
  • Another EA on each user that designates them as staff or students.
  • Classes are represented by a VPP Assignment that scopes a specific set of apps to one or more graduation cohorts.

With that structure, all of the following situations are handled:

  • At the end of a year, we simply rename the current VPP Assignments for next year.
  • If the composition of classes changes between sessions, we can change the class smart groups to select on different graduation cohorts.
  • If a student moves grades, we change their graduation year EA which moves them into the right smart groups. This scenario is, honestly, quite rare.
  • Apps are scoped either to "everyone" - for the core apps - or to specific class-based assignment groups.

So that's how I intend to start moving forward in managing our Casper implementation. It allows apps to be assigned to compositions of year groups, if need be. It also minimises the number of structures or fields required to put things into the right place.

As an example, here's what would be required to enroll a new device for a new student:

  • Create a User record for the student with their graduation cohort and staff/student status set correctly.
  • Enroll the device in Casper, set the device to be a "managed" iPad. There are a number of attributes in Casper you could use to identify a device as such.
  • Assign the device to its user.

With these steps, the user will be assigned the apps appropriate for their class and the device will acquire the correct configuration profiles.