Apple designed, built, and marketed the iPad primarily as a consumer device. Because of its low cost, long battery life, and light weight, it has become a popular purchase in many schools seeking to increasing student access to technology. The problem is that the iPad was designed to be a very personal device and—as a result—large deployments can become unwieldy fast. In the past, teachers, administrators, and technology coordinators have had to develop their own clever tricks to design a sensible workflow for anything more than a few iPads.
In the last few months, managing large numbers of iPads has gotten much easier. Apple Configurator is a tool for Mac OS X that was quietly released by Apple on the same day that the newest iPad was announced. Ostensibly, it allows you to set up and manage multiple devices simultaneously. Using Apple Configurator, I have set up hundreds of iPads in a matter of days. This time last year, it would have taken me weeks.
Apple Configurator has three major modes: Prepare, Supervise, and Assign. The first two are the most important for getting your iPad program off the ground. In Prepare mode, you can easily upgrade your devices to the latest version of iOS, install a common set of apps (either free apps or ones you have bought through Apple’s Volume Purchasing Program), push a configuration profile with wireless settings and restrictions, and use a backup of a device you’ve configured to your liking as a template for your other devices. In addition, you can also have it sequentially number your iPads and export the serial numbers to make inventory and asset management much easier.
Once you have prepared the devices, it is easy to change update these settings in Supervise mode. Even if the device is not immediately available, you can tweak your settings, update the list of apps you’d like on the device, or change its name and your changes will be applied the next time the device is hooked up to your computer.
There are a few limitations with Apple Configurator—but in a lot of ways, they are the same limits that have always been there. First, once you set up a device with Apple Configurator, you will only be able to update it or change the setting from the same computers and only using Apple Configurator. It will not show up in iTunes. This is by design. If this restriction was not in place, the craftier of your students would be able to plug their device into iTunes and override your settings.
In addition, it seems that at this time, devices under supervision cannot export their photos via USB. That means any photos or videos you take are essentially stuck on the device unless uploaded to a cloud-base service with an iOS app or emailed individually. Depending on how you look at it, this could be a blessing or a curse.
Apple released their latest update to Apple Configurator last week and it boasts improved stability, better reliability with apps purchased through the Volume Purchasing Plan and other performance improvements.