The Department of Ungrateful Users

So iOS 8 is upon us and it brings many of the features that I've been waiting in iOS for a very, very long time.

So what's wrong with iOS 8? I've already criticised the bugs, and bugs are bad, but bugs get fixed. What about the design choices and feature set?

Safari and the Web

On our podcast, and online, Bradley and I have criticised Safari as one of the areas of iOS that is materially holding the platform back. Safari's compatibility with the majority of websites is very good. No real complaints there.

The remaining issues centre around two things: web designers being either too clever or too dumb for their own good and file transfer over HTTP.

The first is harder to fix. How do you convince web designers to take touch seriously? The current solution for most is to basically hive off touch compatibility into an m.example.org ghetto. It's not that the desktop web is unusable on an iOS device; it's more that many navigation designs that depend on things like mouseover actions on page elements are extremely non-obvious on touch devices. Despite the fact that a touch, then a second touch usually makes the element work, it's indistinguishable from "broken" in many cases.

The second issue is that the browser isn't just about loading and rendering HTML. Many productivity tasks involve downloading files from, or uploading files to, the web. It could be updating a website, filling in an online expenses form, or whatever.

The download part of this problem has been kind of solved for a while now. You can download one file and, when it's done, use Open In... to send it to another application. This is functional but basic: you have to wait for the file to complete downloading before you can do any action on it, or open another tab (which risks overwhelming Safari if you open too many).

A download manager for Safari would be most welcome. Even better - and Google is starting to do this in Chrome - would be a "download this URL into my iCloud Drive" in which Apple's servers would download the file directly into your Google Drive account from where you could later access it.

The big blocker right now is file upload. Since around iOS 6, it has been possible to upload photos to a website through Safari. This mechanism needs to be generalised to any file. Today, the procedure for any company wanting to accept arbitrary file uploads from iOS looks like:

  • Design, build, test and ship an iOS app.
  • Enable it to accept and upload files via Open In... or picking from iCloud Drive.

We now have a filesystem-like representation on iOS - it's called iCloud Drive - so it should be possible to pick any file from iCloud Drive and upload that through Safari.

All of this, by the way, should also apply to Mail on iOS when it comes to picking attachments.

Inconsistent File Presentation

I do a lot of work on iOS and I use a wide range of apps. What I see right now is a highly inconsistent approach to file handling in many apps. This is not unexpected as developers have spent substantial time over the years building custom integrations to services like Dropbox, Box and Google Drive.

What needs to happen soon is for Apple to seriously tighten up the App Store Review guidelines on file presentation. Everyone needs to use the iOS 8 document picker to present file operations to the user.

Here's a concrete example: I use Auria by Wavemachine to record our podcast. It's a great, powerful app for editing audio on iOS. When I'm done with the mixdown, I'm presented with a fixed range of export options that is, in full: Dropbox, Soundcloud, AudioShare, email or none. We use Google Drive to transfer the audio files for the show, but there's no way to get there directly from Auria.

Basically, all of these custom integrations need to go away and Dropbox, Google Drive, et al should be presenting themselves as iOS 8 Document Providers. To their credit, Dropbox already does but too many apps right now do not present the user that option when moving files around.

Back to the Mac

As iOS evolves, I keep using the same question to gauge its progress: what is it that keeps me going back to the Mac? The list is shorter now than it's ever been. Clipping to Evernote is now easy in iOS 8 with their Safari extension. Using 1Password is now as slick and integrated on iOS as it is on OS X. There remain a few stumbling blocks, but not many.

I ask myself what it would take for me to completely eschew owning a Mac. I'm not there yet and I'm not even all that close to it in practical terms. Like your pal that doesn't have a car but who can only do so because you give him a lift, I could possibly do without my own personal Mac only because I have access to Macs at school.

One of the reasons for this is that the Mac is how you recover an iOS device. If your device turns up its toes completely, one way to get it back is to plug it into a Mac and perform various incantations to revive it. If your iOS device ends up totally full of images and video, the fastest way to solve that problem is to plug it into a Mac and download them all through Image Capture.

You may wish to argue that a "mobile OS" doesn't need to have all the features and power of a "desktop OS" but I disagree. For many, the mobile OS is their first OS. It may even be their only OS. I argue that these devices need to be a superset of desktop functionality, not a subset. They can't be that today because of power, CPU, storage and bandwidth constraints but the gap is closing fast.

We Need to Talk About iOS 8

It's no secret that I have been a huge fan of iOS since its inception. It brought many great improvements in security, stability and approachability for the beginner-to-moderate computer user.

Unfortunately, it increasingly feels like those days are at an end. The iOS 7 and now iOS 8 rollouts have simply not been up to the quality of earlier releases.

For sure, iOS 8 is highly ambitious. I have long been an advocate for many of the features that iOS 8 brought: extensions, interoperability and so on. Sadly, complexity has brought with it fragility.

We have seen problems with apps not being updated in a timely manner. We have seen issues with crashing, devices rebooting, rotation glitches, keyboards playing up, touch screens not responding. Indeed I'm typing this while babysitting the full restore of an iPad that one pupil "broke" - through no fault of their own - while updating to iOS 8.

In times past, I was happy to let students update their OS as they saw fit, since it was generally a highly reliable operation and a safe thing to do. No more.

iOS does not provide a way for administrators to block users from updating their operating system. It's never needed it until now. Today, though, I regard it as a critically missing piece of a large-scale iOS deployment.

When iOS was a simpler beast, I tried to see beyond what we had "lost" in terms of, say, multitasking in order to appreciate what we had gained in these other areas I mentioned in the first paragraph. Today, we have regained much of the power but are in danger of losing one of the main pillars of what made iOS great in the first place.

In terms of features and capabilities, iOS 8 brings me a lot of optimism. In terms of robustness, stability and reliability, it's giving me new reasons to worry.

A First Look at Google Classroom

I recently gained access to the first version of Google Classroom, Google's classroom management system for schools.

The obvious comparison in my mind is the comparison with iTunes U as the other first-party classroom management platform. It's interesting to look at where both of these platforms are today.

Obviously iTunes U is a far more mature product, having had nearly three years in production to gain all of its refinements. Google Classroom is a brand new 1.0 product, so bear that in mind as we go through this.

The Common Stuff

Both platforms do the student management stuff similarly: have students enter a random course code to be added to the class. This is by now pretty standard stuff in edu platforms.

Google Classroom allows the teacher to add people to the course but, strangely, only by picking from your Gmail contacts or previous correspondents. There's no way to upload, say, a CSV of class IDs. iTunes U doesn't have any way for a teacher to add people; it has to be done by self-enrolment.

Both platforms allow teachers to share materials with students. iTunes U requires the teacher to upload from their local storage into a "materials" space in iTunes U. Google Classroom allows upload but also picking from the teacher's Google Drive or searching YouTube. Both platforms support attaching URLs to assignments.

Google Classroom doesn't have any way of attaching materials to a class without attaching them to an assignment. In iTunes U, you can add materials to a course for students to access without making that item an assignment. iTunes U only allows you to attach one item per assignment whereas Google Classroom allows multiple. This is a really nice feature.

iTunes U has tight integration with eBooks through its connection to iBooks. Books are treated as a distinct upload type and gain some special features, such as two-way notes and highlights sync with iBooks. Classroom doesn't appear to do anything special with eBooks at all.

The Learning Model

The way that iTunes U and Google Classroom put their parts together is very interesting. They're actually quite contrasting approaches to the problem of "learning management" (which is a hateful term but at least broadly understood).

iTunes U is built around the idea of a "course". A course contains an outline, posts, notes and materials. The posts are attached to one of the top-level items in the course outline. This is a reasonable way to structure things but can sometimes be over-structured for some of the more ... ah ... fluid teaching approaches I have seen in action.

Google Classroom is much more focused on the assignment as the basic unit of education (helloooo America!). The class is essentially a stream of "announcements" and "assignments" in reverse-chronological order. It's difficult to see how you could use Google Classroom to deliver a substantial amount of structured learning content, the way you can do in iTunes U. Again, this feels US-centric to me: the course material will inevitably be in the textbook, so why bother putting it into Classroom?

Assignment Workflow

iTunes U has never done anything to help a teacher manage the process of digital hand-in, grading and return of assignments. Google Classroom takes up this challenge and leverages Google Docs for much of the interesting bits of it.

When the teacher attaches a Google Doc from their Drive to an assignment, they can choose three options: "Students can view file", "Students can edit file" and "Make a copy for each student". iTunes U, being based on a download model, defaults to "Make a copy for each student" always.

From the student's point of view, the assignment submission workflow is - to my eyes - a little complex. The complexity starts when the "Turn In" button on Google Docs that Google's preview video showed only appears in documents that you have been given by a teacher through an assignment, or that you created from the "Create file" button in Google Classroom. There's no general way to "turn in" an arbitrary Google Drive document directly from the editing interface.

In most cases, though, it seems that the idea is that you use the Google Classroom interface to pick a file (or multiple files) to turn in for an assignment, either from your Google Drive or via upload.

The only support for marking a document that Classroom supports is the standard Google Docs mechanisms of shared editing and comments or edit suggestions. No harm in that; they're powerful tools. It's just that, if the upload is a PDF, photo or video, you'll need to find some other tool to annotate the document.

The teacher can give a numeric grade in the Google Classroom interface and this grade is reflected back to the student in their "Assignment" tab. It's possible to attach comments to all of these: a comment on submission, a comment on the grade being returned and so on. This is quite a nice touch and similar to existing systems like Showbie.

Working with iOS

(At the time of writing, I'm not actually able to log into Google Classroom in Safari on my iPad, so this is a guess at how things will work.)

The interface to Classroom is entirely web based, and it appears to be fully functional within the constraints of Safari on iOS. The big limitation is probably that uploading things is tricky.

I assume that using the Google Drive app on iOS, you'll be able to put files into Drive from various apps and, later, select that file to turn in for an assignment. That's a lot less elegant than hitting a "Turn In" button and, with that amount of file handling involved, a bigger opportunity for students to "lose" a file.

I'm also assuming that the Google Docs and Sheets iOS apps don't know about "Turn In" via Classroom but they might get that ability in a later update. It's not clear to me how Docs knows when to show that button or what makes a given Docs file "Turn In-able".

Living with Classroom

There are a few features that iTunes U has gained over the years that Google Classroom currently lacks which might make it a little difficult to live with in real-world situations right now. These features mostly relate to supporting the way that schools and teachers organise themselves.

Classes are often taught by more than one teacher. iTunes U allows two teachers to share a class and edit it together. Currently, Google Classroom only allows one account to own a class.

Teachers change over the course of a school year. iTunes U allows a teacher to transfer ownership of a course to another teacher. This capability is not currently present in Google Classroom.

iTunes U also supports sharing courses. That is, making a duplicate copy of a course and sending that to another teacher. This feature might not be so important for Google Classroom, given its greater focus on managing assignments. In iTunes U, this feature allows one teacher to write a whole course and then give it to a team of teachers to teach to separate classes.

Conclusions

Google Classroom is clearly very much a 1.0 product while iTunes U has been through a few years of actual use in the field. I don't believe the comparison is unfair, though. My EdTech philosophy is that you have to evaluate what's right in front of you at the time you deploy without making assumptions about what a product might become in the future.

I've tried to tease out where the heart of Google Classroom lies. My initial reaction was to categorise it as "Google's iTunes U" but it really is not. It's more like "Google's Showbie".

Classroom definitely needs work and needs refinement, but it is a promising system if you're looking at something that's Google Drive native. The file handling for assignment hand-in was initially confusing but it's a workflow that students will learn without too much trouble. It's probably too fiddly on iOS right now - Showbie is a much better option for iOS-centric deployments.

I don't know who runs Google's education initiatives but it's clear to me that they are a super-pragmatist. Between Chromebooks, Drive and Classroom, they're building a system to very closely service the needs of exactly what schools do right now. They're on course to deservedly take a big bite out of the "Windows laptop you use to type reports on" use case that many schools still see as the primary use for computers in the classroom.

Microsoft should be very worried.

What's New in iTunes U 2.0

Today, Apple announced iTunes U 2.0. There are two major new features in this release of the app and I wanted to give you a run-down. In addition, my colleague Andrew Jewell sat in for Bradley on the Out of School podcast this week and joined me in a discussion of the new app.

Course Manager for iOS

The first major feature is that all the capabilities of iTunes U Course Manager on the web are now available inside the iTunes U app on iOS. I've wanted this since, oh, thirty seconds after I saw iTunes U 1.0 back in 2010, so it's great to have it.

In addition to writing and posting posts, the first new capability is that you can access your Camera Roll and upload photos and videos directly to your course. This is a huge win, given all the great content creation tools on iOS.

Not so long ago, Andrew and I were doing some iTunes U training with teachers in a local school. We showed them a few content creation tools, such as Explain Everything and it was all going swimmingly until we got to the bit where they had to upload these instructional videos to iTunes U. It was all easy import and export to the Camera Roll on iOS ... and then an amazingly convoluted step involving USB cables, Image Capture and Safari on the Mac. It was actually harder to upload the videos through the Mac than it was to create it on the iPad in the first place.

With iTunes U 2.0, those teachers would be able to just grab the video and upload it directly to their course in iTunes U.

The second thing you can do with uploading is to take files that you've created in various apps on iOS and use "Open In..." to upload them to your course. This is similar to the technique used to upload files to Google Drive, Dropbox or Showbie. Another huge timesaver for teachers.

The final improvement to Course Manager is the addition of "cross-store search". Simply put, this allows a teacher to search for a term and find all content relating to that term across all of Apple's store fronts: the App Store, iTunes Store, iBookstore and the iTunes U catalogue.

In short, you can create and edit all aspects of a course directly from your iPad now.

Class Discussions

The second major feature of iTunes U 2.0 is the ability to open up class discussions on any post in a course. The way I understand this works is that students can respond to any post in the course and the rest of the enrolled students and the teacher are notified of the discussion.

This isn't a submission and feedback channel. It's designed for discussion around the course posts that will be visible to all students.

I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on the new iTunes U when it ships on the 8th of July. These improvements - in particular, Course Manager on iOS - will make a huge difference to the way teachers work with iTunes U.