Thoughts from the Classroom on WWDC

There's a lot to chew over from yesterday's WWDC. It's not often that you get a keynote that leaves you with more questions than answers but I'll run down what I think are the most important features for school iOS deployments.

Let me first say that I'm going to write this with the assumption that everything will work "as advertised". Whether it actually does remains to be seen. However, as I look at it, it is strategically essential to Apple as a company that iCloud delivers on the promises made. MobileMe's failures, while embarrassing enough, did not risk the future health of Apple's core business. iCloud is designed to answer one of the core maturity problems on iOS: the lack of a round-trip story for documents between iOS and desktop computers. Put simply, iCloud cannot be allowed to fail.

I'm going to highlight four things in the keynote that immediately grabbed me as important for schools.

AirPlay Mirroring

As you know, I've been looking at HDTVs and AppleTV as replacements for projectors and Interactive Whiteboards for some time (see here and here). Well, yesterday, that arrangement just got a whole lot better. Apple announced that it will soon be possible to wirelessly mirror your iPad to an HDTV with an AppleTV attached.

This is significant for classroom design. One of the beauties of AirPlay is that anyone can connect to the display from anywhere on the network. It has been available for a while now for video and photos but to be able to mirror your entire iPad screen to a wall-mounted display is significantly more powerful.

It gives you wireless Keynote presentations from anywhere. It gives you Penultimate in your hand without the cable tying you to the front. It puts any web resource that anyone found useful on your classroom wall. It lets you have any child take over the display to show their work without "standing up in front of the class" to do so.

I've been talking about "Keynote over AirPlay" for a while now as something that teachers would generally find useful. We just got that, plus 64,999 other apps "over AirPlay".

This is my #1 headline feature from WWDC. I really feel like I've been skating to where the puck was going on this one and I'm delighted that it's all come together so quickly. I had worried that we would have to wait for iPad 3. The interactive whiteboard has had its day.

WiFi Backup to iTunes

For some time now, it has been less than straightforward to deploy iOS devices to younger children because they can't have their own iTunes account. The Terms & Conditions (which honour the COPPA regulations) disallow anyone under 13 from having their own account. I haven't seen the T&Cs for iCloud yet but I have to assume that this restriction will remain in place as long as COPPA remains in force.

To work around this, we have deployed iPads through school-owned accounts which sync iPads through an iMac in every classroom. In some classes, syncing iPads is literally all these iMacs ever do.

While I still don't think we can (or would want to) give younger children accounts, the ability to back up and sync an iPad wirelessly to iTunes means that we would no longer need a computer in every Primary classroom. One large-ish computer on the network running iTunes could theoretically serve as the backup machine for an entire Primary department's iPads - with no intervention from the teacher. Huge win.

iCloud

For older pupils, iCloud can be considered. Until now, we have provided older pupils with access to a school iTunes account and a personal iTunes library. As well as significant complexity, one side effect of this is that everyone in the Secondary department gets the same apps - pupils who don't do art still get the apps used in art class.

I have written in the past about the Terms and Conditions headaches when deploying without access to the Volume Purchase Program. When each pupil is using their own iCloud account, they're each purchasing apps in their own account. This means that - absent jailbreaking - they're always correctly licensed. Schools could then gift applications to pupils based on the specific classes they're taking, rather than doing a blanket deployment for everyone.

That iCloud is free will help immensely with its adoption in schools. In situations where you have 1:1 devices, you're mainly using iCloud as a continuous backup of work to guard against the problem of lost or damaged iPads. Given that we're using these devices for the vast majority of all the school work, I have always regarded backup as essential.

Until now, we have never had a way to hand over control of the device to a student while still being confident that the device is being regularly backed up. Now, we do.

Are there things that could be better? Sure there are. One thing that immediately springs to mind is some kind of management console for iCloud accounts. Evernote does a great job of enabling schools to deploy many accounts for students. It would be great to have something similar for iCloud where an admin could create several accounts and manage them centrally.

It occurs to me as I write that an iCloud system with account management and custom domain support would make a solid competitor to (the core of) Google Apps. We have run on Google Apps for several years and have been pleased with it but iCloud could potentially be far better integrated with our device deployment.

Per-user Screen Sharing in Lion

Apple's list of Lion features alludes to this little gem:

You can remotely log in to a Mac with any user account on that computer and control it, without interrupting someone else who might be using the computer under a different login.

Until now, it's always been possible to take control of another computer's screen but only for one user account at a time. If Person A is logged into a Mac and Person B connects to it, they'll see Person A's desktop (if authorised). In Lion, it seems, you'll be able to either connect to their desktop session or start your own.

Why is this interesting for school? Well, we still use a number of Mac OS X machines but they're increasingly rarely used. They're mainly used for access to legacy Flash-, Shockwave- and Java-based educational content and for computer programming. We are about a year or so away from having to refresh our existing Macs and I'm asking myself if I really need to replace them with the same number of machines.

What if, instead of spending £15,000-£20,000 on new computers for these uses, we bought one or two very well-equipped Mac Pros and put them on our network running Lion? Every pupil would be able to log into their own graphical session over VNC from their iPad from anywhere in the school. No need to find a laptop and a charger. The big drawback would be sound, which VNC applications typically don't support well.

I'm aware that I'm pushing the boundaries with this. It's probably not an imminent deployment scenario but the technology is now there to do it if required.

When?

Am I going to start redeploying my iPads with iCloud and WiFi backup this summer? Well, no. I think this deployment model is about a year away at least. Firstly, iOS 5 isn't due out until the autumn - well after school starts for the 2011-12 session. Once they're released into the wild, caution would suggest that we wait a while to see if all of this works as it's claimed to do.

With the Lion-as-mainframe idea, it will be interesting to see how much load each subsequent graphical login places on the machine. I suspect the pressure will be on RAM, but Mac Pros can take a lot of RAM these days and RAM is cheaper than an entire computer.

Software is Strategy

I think this year's WWDC keynote was incredibly strategic for Apple after the past few years of tactical deployments of new iPhones. Hardware products come and go but software outlasts them all and software is strategy.

The issue of round-tripping documents to iOS devices was becoming a chore. Personally, I was hardly using Pages and Keynote on iOS for the lack of a good way to get those changes back onto my Dropbox account.

All I hope for, now, is that everything works as advertised.