Empowering education with iPad and iOS 9.3.

A few years ago, after a WWDC session, a group of people were chatting with an engineer and one of the student attendees asked why, in the era of Facebook and startups, the engineer was at Apple. I'll never forget the reply. The engineer said he dreamt of revolutionizing education, of how hard existing tools like whiteboards were to use, and how he believed iPad could change all that. Apple was a place, he said, where any engineer could have passions like education and propose features that would benefit those passions, and have a shot at getting those features in front of hundreds of millions of people. For the engineer, that was why Apple.

Flash forward to this week, and Apple's announcement of compelling new education features coming soon to iPad, and I can't help but remember that story.

The new features, previewing as part of the iOS 9.3 beta, make iPads easier for schools and teachers to manage, and students and teachers to use. Aimed at K-12, that's quite a challenge. A five-year-old and a seventeen-year-old have very different capabilities and needs. To try to meet them all, Apple is once again making very clever use of several technologies the company has spent the last few years building out.

Unlocking potential

Take unlocking and logging in, for example. Touch ID can't yet support the scores of people it would need to in a school setting, yet a passcode and a strong iCloud password would be impossible for a child in kindergarten to use. So, to maintain privacy but enable access, Apple has created a hybrid passcode that treats the managed iCloud ID as a quasi second factor, unlocking and logging in all at one go.

Pragmatic in the best sense of the word, it makes sure each child gets their own data but makes it easy for the child to remember and access it.

Pictures of the child and children and icons for the apps they're using help both student and teacher get into the iPad and go exactly where they're supposed to. Teachers can even help children who need a focused experience by launching their iPad into a specific app and setting it to stay there.

No child left out

While each child can still have their own iPad, Apple is also making it easier to share. Using the same kind of "nearline" strategy as iCloud Photo Library and on-demand resources, iOS intelligently manages the storage on the iPad. So, if the same student logs in every day, all their data is still there, local to the device. If a different student logs in, their data is downloaded and as much of the other student's data is kept as possible, in case they switch back soon.

Over time, and as the limits of the storage are reached, older, less frequently used data is cleared from the iPad but kept safe in the cloud, so if the original student comes back a week or a month later, their data is only a download away.

In other words: Apple is doing everything possible to make sure students get to an iPad and get learning without having to wait for IT or anyone to set them up again.

On the administrative side, Apple is taking what were cantankerous old interfaces from enterprise and making MDM (mobile device management) as easy and accessible as possible for teachers and school IT. For example, passwords can be reset right in the classroom, so students don't have to sit, locked out, until an admin can be found. Apps and iBook textbooks can be purchased with volume discounts automatically applied. Custom content can also be more easily produced and distributed using iTunes U.

It's all designed so that teachers and teach, students can learn, and the overhead is taken out of their way.

Privacy options

If I sound optimistic it's because education is everything and connected computing is the most important tool in making education effective, efficient, and empowering as we go forward. We'll have to wait and see how Apple's new education features work in the real world, but right now, the more options the better.

Google has made great inroads into education with accounts for students and inexpensive access via Chromebooks. Yet not everyone, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is happy with the potential privacy implications that come from using Google's services.

Both my god kids have Google Accounts through their school and I know from personal experience parents want to be better informed and have more options about which companies handle their children's data and what's done with it.

Apple is using privacy (opens in new tab) as a differentiator, which also positions iPad in education as an alternative.

Of course, schools may use Apple devices in conjunction with Google or Microsoft services, so those accounts are also supported on the iPad.

Coming soon

Apple's iPad for education features will be rolling out sometime this spring and, hopefully, will continue to improve in iOS 10 and the years and versions to come. This is a beginning but, if Apple gets it right, an important one.

How iCloud will work backing up and distributing so many children's' data across potentially multiple devices is an open question. Current iCloud accounts top out at 5GB for the free tier. Will it work differently in education? Will a local mid-point be possible?

Likewise, beyond education, how far and how fast these options migrate into the rest of iOS — especially multiple account support and better device management — and become available to families and individuals.

For now, you can learn more about iOS 9.3 and the education preview on Apple.com (opens in new tab)

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • The problem is that Apple has a financial incentive to sell more hardware while Google has a financial incentive to have more users in their cloud. Which choice you think cash strapped school are making? OSX in education has languished and iOS is no different. If Apple really wanted to make a difference in education, they would start with $$.
  • Exactly!! Sent from the iMore App
  • First, let me say that I can back up any claim I make with 12 years of teaching and using different tech in the classroom. Now, while this news of 9.3 being education-oriented is all great, it won't mean a hill of beans until Apple comes up with a cost-effective way for schools and school systems to purchase iPads bundled with keyboards and Pencils. (I'm thinking the iPad Air 3 and most definitely not the iPad Pro.) Along with that, though, Apple needs to come up with a legitimate rival to Office 365 and Google Drive/Docs, both of which I have used in my teaching. In its current form, iWork has absolutely zero appeal to educators. Likewise, iCloud Drive doesn't come close to matching Google Drive or OneDrive for document management capability. Again, I speak from experience: I use OneDrive seamlessly from my work-issued Windows laptop to my personal iOS devices. I don't care that the App Store has more educational apps than Microsoft or Google; as an English teacher, I care that my students can share their notes and writings with me, and I can comment on and grade them while keeping them organized for my own purposes. I love OneNote shared notebooks for checking my students' work, and grading shared Word documents is a breeze. If iWork and iCloud Drive allow the same usability, Apple sure isn't making it obvious, at least not with schools. If our school had iPads, I would want to do more than "manage" my students' iPads - I would want to teach them the value of collaboration using Apple's productivity apps. However, that's just not feasible at this point in time. 9.3 is a good baby step, but Apple is light years behind Google and even Microsoft in the education sector. Of the three (Apple, Google, Microsoft), I'd put my money on Microsoft becoming an even more major player in education. Like Google, Microsoft gets the importance of cross-platform productivity. Skype for Business is an educational product that comes bundled with Office 365 school educational subscriptions and is available for all platforms. What about iMessage for business? Or another Apple messaging service altogether? Those are just examples, but my point is that Apple has to go beyond iPad management and come up with a true education program.
  • "Along with that, though, Apple needs to come up with a legitimate rival to Office 365 and Google Drive/Docs," Does it though? If students / teachers are using iPads / Macs regardless of whatever cloud-based service they're running, I would still look at that as win for Apple.
  • True, but I'd argue that for teachers, it's the service that matters most, not the machine. Before Office 365, we were using Google Drive as our cloud service. No one cared that it was on a Windows machine. Even though we all had pre--365 on our machines, most teachers used Google for collaboration in their classes. I'm just speaking from experience.
  • Apple is recognizing in 9.3 that students might be using Google or Microsoft accounts as well, and tried to make that as easy as possible as well from what I understand.
  • That's a step in the right direction, and kudos to Apple for allowing Microsoft and Google apps to function so well on their devices. However, I've yet to see any use of iWork/iCloud (or even read about such use) at the school level, at least compared to the competitors, and doesn't that have to be one of Apple's goals? To create its own rival to Office 365 and Google Drive? As I said previously, iCloud Drive is one of the linchpins for making everything work seamlessly with respect to collaboration. So many teachers use MacBooks and iPads at both the personal and professional levels, yet most of them are using Microsoft or Google accounts because of the ease of and familiarity with collaboration tools. While 9.3 is Apple's way of saying, "We want a bigger piece of the educational pie," it's also only the first step toward more relevance in education. They are way behind the other guys, and let me tell you - educational technology is evolving at breakneck speed. However, if Apple gets its act together, they still can make their mark in education. Again, I say it starts with an overhaul of iCloud Drive and, as someone else commented, lowering the costs for schools, even if Apple doesn't turn a profit (God forbid).
  • As an educator as well, I think you hit on several key points. +1
  • First of all iPad and Education is first world problem and even in "First World" many people and schools cannot afford iPad for teaching. The title "empowering education" is very misleading because it's talking about a feature in iPad that is it, and only people getting "empowered" by it is the rich kids and rich schools.
  • What he said....^ Sent from the iMore App
  • My daughter goes to a private school. They don't use ipads. It's windows. Kids get a laptop. If I was a school, I couldn't devote limited resources to a limited device and platform. iOS/ipad would just be a stupid decision. Although I wouldn't mind seeing ipads used for textbooks, pdfs, and basically taking a complimentary role. Her backpack must weigh 20lbs taking home some textbooks for homework. Parents pay around a 500 dollar book fee. The books are old, out of date, etc. BTW...please stop this first world nonsense. Would you rather talk about third world problems?
  • How is iOS limited? The limitations aren't really anything that would affect the educational side, plus for kids, they can download weird stuff to laptops that can get viruses or slow down the laptop, you avoid all of that with iOS
  • "First World nonsense" really ? Here's the thing the only thing you have to worry about is "ios is limited" or "Your daughter have to lift heavy backpack" . In case you didn't read the title of article it says "empowering education" do you know what that means ? let me explain it to you in simple way "it means every child in the world has right to education" if you still think that's not a bigger problem than your daughters 20 lb backpack then don't even bother to comment.
  • I'm sorry. But what the heck did you just say? I think you have more problems than even an ipad can solve..
  • This is a great ad for Apple, but it completely ignores the reality of the educational system. iPads are too expensive, period. Until Apple approaches education from a non-profit taking mode, this goes nowhere.
  • At first, you appeared to make a compelling argument, but I couldn't help but notice that this is the same argument made against Apple for decades. So instead of simply making iPads cheaper, why shouldn't they instead focus on adding value or quality enhancing services to it?