A Friendly Guide to Deploying iPads at Your School

There is a lot to like about the iPad when it comes to using them in the classroom. It’s light and fast. It turns on instantly. The battery lasts all day. Best of all, it’s about half the price of a MacBook. Let’s face it, price matters when you’re buying at scale.

For personal use, the iPad is a breeze to set up. Turn it on, connect to a wireless network, enter your Apple ID, and you’re ready to go. If you’re already a resident of the Apple ecosystem, your apps are waiting for you in on a “Purchased” list in the App Store and backups of your other devices are available via iCloud for download to your current device. If you’re a new convert, getting started and downloading apps is a relatively painless experience.

There is also a lot to like about iOS. It’s a lean, mean operating system. It’s use of sandboxing keeps it relatively clutter free. iOS doesn’t do a lot, but it’s pretty good at what it does do.

That said, deploying iPads at any kind of scale is just short of maddening. While the process of tapping around to install one app on one iPad isn’t too bad, installing a dozen apps on hundreds iPads isn’t a particularly appealing way to spend a month. If you are going to deploy iPads at scale, you need a strategy. You need a battle plan. In addition, you will also need to stay hydrated. I don’t think I’ve discovered the silver bullet, but I’ll share some of my experiences with you in order to, hopefully, shorten the learning curve.

First, kindly allow me to give you some background. I am the technology coordinator at The Scholars’ Academy, a public school in New York City. This year, we piloted a one-to-one iPad program in the seventh grade. We also have several smaller deployments—including two class sets in the eighth grade, a half-class set for each department in the high school, and a iPad for each teacher. Next year, we’re doubling down and expanding our pilot to include one-to-one iPads in the eighth grade and an increased deployment in the high school. For the sake of brevity and due to fact that the New York City Department of Education haven’t worked out a process for purchasing apps, I’m going only going to cover basic setup and the installation of free apps. In addition, I will be completely ignoring the Assign tab as it requires that you have a Mac OS X Lion Server in place and configured. I do, but many do not.

Consider this a freshman level tutorial. We can cover more advance topics at a later date, if you’re interested. If you have further questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

On paper, Lion Server should work. It might be my school’s Byzantine network setup, it might be false promises and half-hearted attempts (I’m looking at you iCloud), or it might just be me, but I’ve never gotten it to play nicely with our fleet. My current strategy involves using another tool from Apple called Apple Configurator, which was quietly released alongside the new iPad in March of 2012.

Apple Configurator is a fickle mistress. Although the latest version (1.0.1, as of this writing) boasts improved stability, it’s still pretty buggy. There is a zen to Apple Configurator. If you learn how to go with the flow, your experience will be exponentially less frustrating then if you swim upstream and try to bend it to your whim.

Some caveats:

Apple Configurator has three modes: Prepare, Supervise, and Assign. Prepare mode gets your iPads configured to work with Apple Configurator. You can tweak the settings and hit the button labelled “Prepare” on the bottom-center of the window. If all goes well, this will set off an infinite loop that will prepare and all iPads connected to your Mac. Additional emphasis should be placed on the words “if all goes well.”

Prepare Mode

Prepare mode has a few options that you can tweak to your tastes. It can name your devices in sequential order prefixed by whatever text your heart desires. It can install a any one of a number of different versions of iOS. For most features, you will need to be using iOS 5.1 or later.

Theoretically, you can also install applications, restore from a backup, and install configuration profiles in this view—but I recommend against it. I have had little success attempting to do more than one thing at a time with the Apple Configurator.

Step one is to get your iPads updated to iOS 5.1 and turn on supervision. At this point, do not get carried away with any other features. I’ve included a screenshot below for reference.

Once, you’ve prepared all of your iPads. It’s time to switch tabs. Click on the icon labelled “Supervise” in the tool bar. If all went well, you should have three panes. A list of groups on the left, a list of devices in that group in the center, and settings on the right. The groups on the left are a lot like tags in Gmail. A given device can be in as many groups as you need. There is also a special group that contains all of the devices currently connected to your computer by USB.

You can make changes to devices that are not currently connected, but those changes will not take effect until next time the device is connected. You can select all of the devices in a group by selecting “All Devices” at the top of the list. If you scroll up past the top of the list, some secret options will appear—such as sorting options and a search box.

"Prepare Mode"

The right column is where all of the action is. This column is itself broken up into two views: Settings and Apps. All of the options should look pretty familiar, but this time, we’re going to dig in a little deeper.

Our first order of business is to setup some configuration profiles. If you’ve made profiles in the past using the iPhone Configuration Tool, you can import them or you can just start from scratch. If you choose to create a new profile a sheet will drop down with a plethora of options—I’ll focus on only the most pertinent ones.

A quick word about setting up configuration profiles: It’s tempting to make one master configuration profile and use it everywhere. I’ve found that this is not necessarily the best route. Apple Configurator allows you to install multiple configuration profiles.1 I recommend making a set of small, nimble configuration profiles that you can jigsaw together as need. A prime example of this is to make on profile that just contains the wireless network settings. You can use it on teacher’s iPads as well as students’ iPads, which might also get a second profile full of harsh restrictions. In addition, you could also drop the profile in an email to upcoming guests of the school so that they can instantly access the Internet upon entering.

Under General, there are some boring—yet mandatory—settings such as a name for your profile, but there is also one called Security. Previously, students or whoever could remove a profile that they weren’t happy with (e.g. one that restricted Photo Booth). In Apple Configurator, you get a bit more granular control. You can password protect the removal of a configuration profile or even outright deny the ability all together.

The Restrictions section is pretty straight forward. I will say that you probably want to be less Draconian that you’d think is prudent. In my experience, heavy-handed restrictions often lead to headaches later when teachers and students want to leverage a feature for a sound instructional reason. See also: most web filtering policies when all you want to do is access a Shakespeare sonnet.

You can set up your Wi-Fi networks from here and they will be pushed to your device. This is huge. If you work a school in the New York City Department of Education, then the security type is WEP and you ought to be using the automatic proxy.

In addition, I like to set up Web Clips (home screen bookmarks) to various school websites and force a subscription to the school’s Google Calendar on the students. Your personal preferences may vary on this one.

At this point, you probably feel like there is a whole lot more configuration that you would like to do that is beyond the scope of the configuration profiles you just set up. Don’t worry, that’s what backups are for.

Your inner monologue after reading that last sentence: “Wait, what? Backups? I haven’t even peeled the plastic off of the glass screen yet!”

The Restore menu allows you to use a backup of one of your devices as a template for future devices. This is a big part of the reason that we updated all of our iPads to 5.1 before I mentioned about this feature. Backups are not backwards compatible and your perfect iOS 5.1 setup would not have been available to devices with iOS 5.0.

"Supervise"

In practice, you will probably want to have your apps installed and configured as well at this point, but I’ll get into apps in a bit. Let’s treat this like a Tarantino movie for the time being. Like configuration profiles, you can make as many backups as you’d like. Unlike configuration profiles, you can only install one backup at any given time. Once you have an iPad set up to your liking, connect it to Apple Configurator and create a backup. You can apply that backup to as many iPads as you want and next time they connect, they will be updated with the new backup.

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m going to focus on installing free apps. Purchasing and installing apps through Apple’s Volume Purchasing Program is another story for another day. Your computer must be authorized in iTunes for whatever apps you plan on installing.

Even if you’ve downloaded apps in iTunes, they still need to be added into Apple Configurator. In the apps pane, click on the little plus sign in the lower left-hand corner. By default, you should be in your Mobile Applications folder. If not, you can find your mobile applications in ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/Mobile Applications.

Here’s the bad news: Anytime you update the app, you will manually have to add it to the Apple Configurator again. This is even more of a hassle that it seems initially, as you need to mentally keep track of which apps you’ve updated recently.

"Installing Apps"

Click on the apps you would like to install. If you hold option while clicking on a checkbox, it will check them all. Click on apply to deploy your apps. Any iPads currently connected to the configurator will receive them immediately. Disconnected iPads will wait until the next time they are connected. Depending on how large the apps you are, you should see them begin to pop up on the home screen of the connected iPads. You may now celebrate.

This tutorial reflects my experience with the Apple Configurator. The tool is relatively new and this guide could become wildly out of date and inaccurate in the event that Apple released an improved version. In addition, your mileage may vary. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions and I will try to keep this page as up to date as possible.


  1. I’m hesitant to say words like “unlimited.” I haven’t tested the waters personally. 

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