Need a little Focus?

One of the additions to iOS 7 was the ability for multi-device managers to allow schools to control iPads in classroom settings. In the case of our district, we have wanted to have students have the ability to run the apps they want to run, as long as they do so at appropriate times. So far, we have chosen only to block specific websites that are blocked on our district firewall (e.g. adult websites) and Snapchat.

So, we have been fortunate and students have only been in the proper app at all times, and students are never off task.

And that last line is a complete and utter lie. The truth is that it is very hard to keep a student on task and in the right app. There are a lot of technology proponents that say something like, “Make your lesson interesting and kids will do what they are supposed to do.” I'm here to tell you that particular statement is a complete myth. Sure, if your lesson is engaging, you'll keep more kids. But if you have 1:1 iPads (and iPads in particular), students will be doing other things from time to time. And iOS 7 has made it even easier for students to switch out of an app and close it before you can “catch” them in the act.

I find myself more accepting of this than many other educators because I have watched my fellow educators–at multiple schools–do the same thing on their MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones at meetings where they should be focused on a speaker. I have even been the speaker on some of those occasions. And, yes, I too have done other things on electronic devices at meetings. You can tell me you are a professional all you want, but if you are doing the same thing your students are doing, how can you be mad at them when they are tempted away from your content?

I'm not saying this is okay, but we need to be able to deal with this in a better way. That said, I have always said that teachers often act in ways that they would never tolerate from their students in staff meetings. One teacher at a past school would consistently get phone calls in full staff meetings, and leave the room talking loudly to the caller (and all were non-emergency situations). That same teacher would have flipped out if a student ever did the same to him.

Anyway, how do you keep kids on task? I will be updating my iBook in the coming weeks to talk about some tried-and-true methods, but today I want to discuss Casper Focus, a new feature of the Casper MDM system. Casper is a management system for Apple devices, and there is an iOS component. Casper Focus is an app-based tool that accesses Casper's database, and then allows teachers to “focus” a classroom set of iPads on a single app, or to create groups and have them focus on different apps. You can change the apps that students are focused into, and you can release the focus.

This ability to lock a student in an app for a class period or part of a class period is a HUGE bonus for teachers, with the potential value equaling the value of AirPlay for 1:1 iPad initatives. And an added benefit is that you can continue to give students great freedom while using their iPads, yet make sure they are in the right place in your classroom. Simply brilliant.

But here's the honest truth: Focus hasn't been working quite right in our district so far. I believe we are running a beta version, while an updated “full release” version was released this week and will be implemented very soon in our district. When you go to claim a classroom set of iPads, not all of them are “claimed.” This means that the students who are not “claimed” are able to what they did before. And as a music teacher in a performance-based classroom, this means that my ability to wander the room to check for complaince is limited (and they could switch out of another app by the time they see me coming).

I am not sure why we don't claim all the student iPads–they appear in the system. It is possible there are issues with our proxy system, or some other issue where the student iPads are not connected to our network quite right. If a student has removed security profiles (this is happening in LA), this also shows in Casper, and we can immediately seize that iPad and bring it to our specialists to reformat the devices from scratch (the only way to reinstall some profiles…Apple really needs to make a way to lock those profiles from deletion without some kind of a password key).

The problem is that those iPads eventually connect back to the system in the right way, at which point Casper Focus knows that you tried to claim that iPad–and then starts causing issues to that iPad. For example, there is a message (“guided access app not available, contact your administrator”) that won't go away, certain apps won't open, students can't use the “Open In” feature (a major feature that we use from Google Drive to Notability), or even the App Store won't work. Before I was able to diagnose this problem, students were bringing their broken iPads to our media specialist, who was then reformatting the iPads to get them to work. We now know that the teacher who attempted to claim the device can simply claim that device again (sometimes a hard reset is necessary), force the iPad into an app, and then let it go. That solves the whole problem.

The good news is that I am one of two teachers who has been testing this app in our school this week. So we don't have 70 staff members causing havoc to student iPads when they don't connect properly. The bad news is that I see over 220 of our 770 students, and Casper Focus has been failing to claim up to half of my classes at times. This means that there are lots of students who may be having issues. I have told my classes about these problems and have asked them to come to me for help–but this doesn't mean that they hear me when I tell them.

I'm not complaining about Casper Focus; this isn't an Apple App (when Apple releases its own app, you expect it to work properly) and app supervision is a new function under iOS 7 for MDMs. I can see that we are going to work out the bugs in Casper Focus and have an incredible tool to help us keep our students on task. Apple does have a similar program, but it only applies to batches of 50 iPads, unlike our rollout of nearly 6,000 iPads district-wide (and that is only a start in a much larger district).

The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, I wanted to give some hope to teachers looking for iPad management solutions that go beyond what was possible in iOS 6. Second, I wanted to let you know that Casper Focus, as a tool, is going to be incredible. I'm okay with the bumps in the road; the final product is going to be game-changing. Expect similar functionality from other MDMs in the future.



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