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.

iOS 8 For Education

I've posted my initial thoughts on the implications of iOS 8 for education over at Macworld.

In short, I believe extensibility is the most important thing that Apple has added to iOS this year. Giving developers the ability to connect their apps together will have huge implications for the future growth of the platform.

I do have some reservations about things like iCloud Drive, so go read the article for the full story.

You Must Have an Answer

Regular readers of my blog, Twitter or podcast listeners will know that I'm a fan of Adam Greenfield's work. Perhaps, more precisely, I'm a fan of the way he thinks. We work in substantially different areas - I in education and he in urban studies - but I always find value in what he writes.

Adam recently posted a powerful essay on Bluetooth beacons and their implications. While I'm interested in beacons generally, I got the most out of the early part of his piece:

If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.

My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. ...

And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.

I feel similarly in my approach to technology. I'm not altogether interested in debating whether or how much technology should be used in schools. Like Greenfield, I recognise that technology is here to stay whether we like it or not.

Where I feel I converge with Greenfield, and why I get so much out of his writing, is that we both wish to argue for a more humane, more human-focused, more considered and thoughtful use of technology that empowers people rather than merely strengthening existing institutions.

The debate and the art here is not really about whether technology should be used in schools as much as whether and how specific technologies should be deployed for specific schools in specific areas.

If you've listened to our "Deploy 2014" podcast series on Out of School, you'll know that my approach all the way through has been to say this: the decisions you make and the solutions you propose to problems will be specific to your school ... but you must have an answer.

If you're going with iPad, you should be able to articulate exactly why. If you're not, you need similarly strong arguments. You need to be able to say what happens when it gets broken. You must know how to provision the right amount of network capacity, filtering, wifi and charging. What's the "right amount"? Well that depends on the situation.

Like Greenfield, I don't buy the line that all technology is great in school. The committed, enthusiastic and technically capable teacher can see the learning in anything but that doesn't mean it's going to serve the needs of the whole school community. At the same time, you must balance the best-tool-for-the-job argument against the costs of specifying, managing and working within a heterogeneous technological environment.

For more on this topic, I refer you to both the ongoing Deploy 2014 series on my podcast and specifically Episode 58: Against the Smart Classroom in which Bradley and I explore the parallels between Greenfield's book Against the Smart City with emerging "smart classroom" trends as embodied in technologies such as the Amplify tablet, Nearpod and "learning analytics".

Understanding VPP Managed Distribution in Casper

Ever since Apple announced the availability of the VPP Managed Distribution program earlier this year, the race has been on to see which MDM vendors would ship support - and when.

At Cedars, we use the Casper Suite from JAMF Software (disclaimer: who also occasionally sponsor my podcast). Casper 9.3 just came out this week with their support for VPP-MD, and I've been working on getting it up and running.

Firstly, the migration to 9.3 was as painless as Casper updates always are. Do back up your database first, though!

VPP-MD Theory

You need to understand how VPP-MD works. Here are a couple of key ideas:

  • You now buy a number of "managed tokens" in VPP. You no longer buy coupon codes under VPP-MD.
  • Apps are assigned to individual Apple IDs, not to devices.
  • Apple IDs are not disclosed to the organisation's MDM server.
  • App allocations can be revoked from an Apple ID and reallocated to another Apple ID.
  • Books can be purchased and allocated in the same way, but they cannot be revoked. Ever.

Apple IDs in Casper

The fact that apps are now allocated to Apple IDs instead of devices means that Casper has had to acquire a notion of "users". This was initially rather confusing as Casper already has "users" - in the sense of "accounts that can log into the JSS and manipulate it with some level of access control".

The first thing to realise is that a capital-U "User" is essentially Casper's representation of an Apple ID in the MDM system.

How does Casper get that Apple ID? Well, there's a new concept of "VPP Invitations". Apple requires that each Apple ID owner give permission for an organisation to allocate apps and books to their devices. Casper does this by sending a VPP Invitation.

When they receive a VPP Invitation, the user sees a notification on their device asking for permission. When the user OK's the notification, they're asked to sign into their Apple ID and to agree to new T&Cs.

Question: how does Casper know which device to push a notification to? Well, since we have existing devices in Casper, I created new User objects and then assigned those Users' usernames to the username field in the device's "Owner and Location" information. That's the connection between a User object and a Device object.

Once the user has fully responded to the invitation, Casper knows how to connect an Apple ID with one or more enrolled devices.

VPP in Casper

Under VPP-MD, Apple maintains information in the App Store system about your institution's VPP account and how many of which apps you've bought. The only interfaces you have to this back-end API from Apple is through the VPP portal (to buy apps) and your MDM server (to allocate apps to Apple IDs).

To get going with this, you have to download a "token" from the VPP portal and upload it to Casper. This allows Casper to query the App Store to know which apps you've bought and show them to you in the Casper UI.

Once you've connected Casper to your VPP account, created new User objects, connected them with the enrolled devices and sent VPP invitations, you should be ready to start allocating apps.

When you buy apps, if you choose "Managed Distribution" instead of the old "Redeemable Codes", you no longer get a spreadsheet of codes to download. Instead, the app licenses are credited to your VPP account and will eventually show up in Casper. There seems to be a small delay of a minute or two before Casper is notified of the new apps.

Incidentally, one of the side effects of Managed Distribution is that you now have to "buy" free apps. I don't mean you have to pay for them, but you do have to complete a transaction in the VPP portal to put those free apps into your VPP-MD account.

Allocating Apps in Casper

When you're ready to allocate apps in Casper through VPP-MD, there is a new idea of "VPP Assignments". Whereas, previously, you would add apps to Casper and scope them to specific devices or groups of devices, you now select apps from your VPP-MD account and scope them to specific users or groups of users.

I have still to think through exactly how to architect these groups correctly but the obvious first-cut is to create one group per class and a staff group. Creating subject-and-stage-specific groups would allow the allocation of specific apps to, say, "all pupils and teachers involved in Higher Chemistry".

One of the big advantages of VPP-MD for schools is the ability to reallocate apps. At its most obvious, this means you don't have to re-buy apps for pupils next year. Think a little more deeply, though, and you can see how this might start to facilitate buying "class sets" of more expensive apps and moving the apps around different devices, rather than having to buy one copy for everyone who might ever need it.

If only we could do that with books.

Silent Installation

With Managed Distribution and iOS 7, we get a new and very helpful feature: silent push-installation of apps on devices.

Under earlier systems, pushing an app to a device required that the user see and respond to an alert asking them to install the given app. This allowed the possibility that the user might cancel the installation and the only way to complete the install was to repeat the push. This is obviously quite wasteful of admin effort.

One of the main reasons I chose Casper Suite last year was their Self-Service Portal, which worked around this problem quite nicely. Self-Service shows a list of all the apps that are in scope for a particular device and allows the user to initiate a push to their device by tapping an "install" button in the portal.

However, with VPP-MD, even that's no longer required. When an app comes into scope for a given user, Casper will push-install the app on their registered devices. Better, it will do this silently, with no interaction required from the user and therefore no ability for the user to, well, screw things up.

Currently, I have to return all our primary school iPads to base to install new apps. Under VPP-MD, I can just sit at my Casper dashboard and push apps out all over the school. It won't matter if the iPads are in schoolbags or in use. It won't even matter if a pupil is absent that day (a big issue in return-to-base maintenance) - the push will find them at home as long as they're online.