Alas, Whispercast

Categories: Apps, Gadgetry, The Classroom
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: November 19, 2012

Apple, Google and Amazon are competing hard in the consumer market, but not a one has been able to quite meet the demands of the eduction market. I’ve long felt the first one to come up with a viable deployment and management solution, including textbook management and delivery, will be the winner in this space. To date, there is no clear leader.

Amazon’s solution is Whispercast, a free web interface for managing Kindle devices, content, and users. I purchased a handful of Kindle Fire HD tablets to test deployment and management, and while it holds a lot of promise, it still feels very much like a beta product.

Close but no cigar, Amazon

To sign up for Whispercast, one only needs an Amazon account. I used the credentials specific to my school email address to log in and I was ready to go. The management screen is fairly straightforward, with some “Get Started” documentation and a number of links and tabs for Users, Devices, Policies, Documents, and eBooks.

What they don’t make quite clear is how to order hardware through Whispercast. There’s a “how to purchase” link which instructs you to call Amazon directly. Call them, however, and they’ll tell you to just order the devices you need through the standard Amazon shopping process. Then you come back and enter the order number into the Add Devices button on the Devices tab.

Okay, fair enough. I’m only ordering three and they don’t charge me tax, so I’m good with that. I entered the order number, however, and Whispercast couldn’t find any Kindles. I had to wait a while until the order was actually processed and shipping before Whispercast could actually “see” the Kindles.

These are small things, to be sure, but it’s unnecessary confusion.

Kindle Users, meanwhile, can be created individually, in bulk with a template, or through invitation for existing Amazon accounts. Users can then be placed into Groups for management purposes. Every new user created also gets an Amazon account, so the email address must be unique. This is where Amazon demonstrates two examples of foresight:

  1. If a student or teacher already has an Amazon account, the administrator can add a plus sign and a random string to make the account unique. For example, I created moliveri+kindle1 and moliveri+kindle2 email addresses. I still receive email generated from account usage, but it keeps these Kindle accounts separated from the primary account I use to manage Whispercast or to purchase hardware.
  2. In a BYOT/BYOD environment, users with existing Kindle accounts can be invited to the Whispercast management system. This way an administrator can still push Kindle content to the user without actually taking ownership of their device or interfering with any content they may already own.

Created Users can then be assigned to devices. This is done either randomly or by assigning them to a specific device by typing in (or copying & pasting) the device serial number into a field. You can see a screen shot of the device screen with users assigned below.

Whispercast screen shot
The Device Management screen

The plus side of this is as soon as I opened the Kindle Fires and connected them to my wireless network, they were provisioned with the assigned users. On the down side, because the device serial numbers are not visible on the outside of the device (especially after they’re placed in a case), there’s not an easy way to keep track of which devices are assigned to which users. In the future, I’d like to see the ability to rename devices to make deployment and management easier, particularly in a loaner/library setting. Allowing a serial number from a bar code to tie into an asset management system would be even better.

Simple Policies can also be placed on the devices. Restriction policies, for example, allow administrators to block the store, social network integration, or the web browser, or to lock out factory reset, prevent wireless tampering, and enforce password/lock settings. The Wireless Networks policies allow an administrator to push out wireless network settings to the devices for roaming around campuses. There isn’t much granularity in these settings, but they work in our environment.

Through the Documents tab, administrators can push their own documents out to the devices. I uploaded a PDF file and it arrived on each device in moments. The only trick here is Whispercast still uses the shopping cart metaphor, so it feels like you’re purchasing a free document rather than uploading and distributing something.

At this point I was able to use the Kindles and download free eBooks. They came with 30 days of Prime membership, so I was also able to borrow a book from the Kindle Lending Library for free. I knew going in that Whispercast was not set up for apps, but I was disappointed to learn that I could also not download free apps without a credit card associated with the accounts. Parents and students could conceivable add credit cards or pre-pay debit cards to their accounts, but it would be a lot more convenient for a student to be able to download Evernote or similar apps without having to track down a card.

To this point, I didn’t see any real showstoppers. However, when I involved the librarian and started to purchase eBooks, the major shortcoming started to appear.

I had intended to turn these Kindles over to our library from the beginning, so I wanted to add our librarian as an administrator. Unfortunately there is no way to do so within the Whispercast interface. I called Amazon for help, and once they verified her Amazon account, they were able to give her information to the developers. It was then about 24 hours before she was able to log in.

The library had two older e-ink Kindles already, and we wanted to add them to the Whispercast account as well. Again, the only way to add them to the Whispercast account is through order numbers, and we were only able to find the number for one of the Kindles. The system did not acknowledge the order, so we had to again call Amazon. They gave us the choice of inviting a user (which we could do ourselves) or providing them with the device serial numbers. We chose the latter, they were turned over to the developers, and once again we had to wait until the Kindles appeared on the Whispercast account.

Now device management got a little dicier. Random assignment to users is the easiest, but now if a Fire HD and a Keyboard Kindle were both available, the librarian would have no control over what a student received. This would require her to track serial numbers on the exterior of the devices to be sure she assigned the student to the correct device. Also, some kind of checkbox or drag-and-drop interface would be much more helpful than entering or pasting a serial number.

Finally, and the most problematic, is the entire Kindle library is not available to Whispercast. The librarian looked up several of the most popular books through the Whispercast eBooks tab but could not find them. She tried a few other titles at student prompting, and only found a couple of them. Yet another call to Amazon and they told her no, the full library is not yet available and the developers were working on it.

Overall, it’s a great start but still very much a beta product. They Whispercast home page talks about a school in Florida already deploying Kindles to 3600+ high school students, but there are a lot of compromises to deal with for that many devices. Having to make a phone call and wait 24 hours for changes just doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially where non-technical users may be administering the devices.

Right now, I feel like if I could take the over-the-air management and content deployment of Whispercast and merge them with some of the granularity of Apple Configurator for iOS devices, schools would have a really solid product. And whither Google in all of this? I understand they have management for Chromebooks, but I haven’t seen anything for Android tablets.

In the end, it appears the manufacturers are content to hand us off to third-party device management vendors for the time being. There are some good solutions out there, but they only add to the costs of deployment, which can make or break 1:1 programs in cash-strapped districts. This is why smaller players like the Kuno Mobile Tablet are starting to make strides by bundling their devices with a management package.

Schools are ready to catch up with the hardware. Now it’s up to the manufacturers to catch up with us.

Paperless School Board Meetings with iPads

Categories: Apps, Gadgetry
Comments: 3 Comments
Published on: November 20, 2011

Our school board has been paperless for over a year now, allowing them to be more efficient, less wasteful, and to save the time and money involved in generating the paperwork necessary for every school board member.

This weekend, our school board president, superintendent, and myself gave a presentation on how this is accomplished at the Illinois Association of School Boards convention. Our panel room was packed with school board members and superintendents from other districts, including several people standing in the back and sitting on the floor in the aisle. We were pleased to see so many other districts interested in moving to paperless meetings, and there were a lot of great questions afterward.

The Presenter
Your presenter for this morning

My portion of the presentation concentrated on why we chose the iPad over laptops, netbooks, and competing tablets. Several people asked for copies of our presentation after we were finished, and I’m happy to share that here:

Paperless with iPads (PDF)

On the software side, everything is handled with Dropbox. Our goal was to keep our expenses to a minimum, and Dropbox’s free accounts offer plenty of space for our needs. Our superintendent and district bookkeeper simply export the board packets and any supporting documentation to PDF, then drop them into a shared folder which is automatically pushed out to each board member (as well as anyone else subscribed to the folder).

This is a lot easier to organize than distributing documents via email, and it enables the board members to have everything at hand at all times, including packets, agendas, and so forth from previous meetings. It works well, and it saves the cost of subscriptions to services like Board Portal, which can cost thousands of dollars and, in our case, eliminate any cost savings in going paperless.

Another school board member recorded some video of our presentation, and he caught the first few minutes of my portion on video:

You can also see our school board president’s introduction to the panel on YouTube.

If anyone has any further questions about our presentation or how we handle our paperless meetings, feel free to leave comments on this post or contact me via email.

Google Coming Around on Management?

Categories: Apps, The Server Room
Comments: Comments Off
Published on: May 16, 2011

Google may have a solution to device management after all, though it’s just a start. Check out the Google Apps Device Policy app on the Android Market. Right now it looks more like a competitor to Apple’s MobileMe features such as location reporting and remote wiping, but it’s a start for security for schools or companies.

According to this announcement, it’s only available for Google Apps for Business, Government, or Education customers. This at least gives IT folks some options in securing their users’ devices, especially if those devices are company-issued. Judging by user reviews, it also appears the app is difficult (if not impossible without rooting/jailbreaking) to remove.

It doesn’t say anything about pushing out apps, restricting apps or setting wireless passwords, or managing things like proxies or DNS settings. I’m also curious whether the My Devices page it mentions will list device serial numbers and activated accounts. If we get serious about testing an Android tablet at my workplace, I’ll be installing this and taking it for a test drive.

The Promise of Tablets to Come

Categories: Apps, Gadgetry
Comments: Comments Off
Published on: May 10, 2011

The real problem with jumping on board any tablet solution in a large deployment is committing to those tablets with so many new developments still in the pipeline.

Case in point: the much-rumored Amazon tablet.

With Amazon adopting its own Appstore, the competing Nook Color becoming more like a full-fledged tablet with every iteration, and Apple getting into the book business with the iBooks store, it makes sense Amazon could enter the tablet market. They could continue selling other Android devices — and Android apps — to their customers, but an Amazon-branded device more or less locks them in.

An Amazon tablet and dedicated Appstore could be a real boon for education, however. Barnes & Noble and Amazon would both be wise to get into the e-textbook business, but if Amazon could take it a step farther and set up app subscriptions and volume purchases for schools, and have those apps pushed out to end users (students) over the air, it could become a real advantage over both the Android Market and the iTunes Store’s Volume Purchase Plan.

It’s also possible Google will catch up. If Android tablets could be tied into the Google Apps for Ed accounts many of us have, it could make life a lot easier for school (and corporate) techs. Imagine making a volume app purchase, then enabling it for all students or a subset, such as a classroom, with just a few clicks. The students fire up their tablets and are notified of the new app installation.

Google already allows syncing of bookmarks, passwords, contacts, and calendars, and of course the whole Docs suite is readily available. Maybe it’s oversimplifying, but it seems to me a few extra hooks and extensions and a profile and settings could be pushed out to a device. It would go something like this:

  1. A tech configures the end user’s profile and it’s deposited in their Google Apps account.
  2. The end user (in this case a student) logs in to the device with their Apps account.
  3. The device logs the user, device serial number, and maybe make/model for the Google Apps domain administrator.
  4. The device pulls the profile information down, the device is configured automagically, and any apps, etc. associated with the user account are installed.
  5. The device is ready to rock and/or roll.

By the way, I’m speaking device management in broad terms here. This could be as simple as inventory and app installation, wireless access key distribution, or lockdowns like content filters and hardware controls. (I tend to be fairly open in what I’d want to manage, but that’s a topic for another post.) Maybe admins can toggle a setting out of the box to prep the device to receive the configuration before distributing them to end users, install a different firmware on-site, or even receive the tablets from the factory with a tweaked OS waiting for a Google Apps account.

I should also note this would be for a traditional 1:1 setup. A bring-your-own-device district, I’m assuming, would not have to worry about these things. (That, too, is probably beyond the scope of this post.)

That’s Android. Going back to the iPad and other iOS devices, we have OS X Lion coming this summer. Scroll to near the bottom for Lion Server, and you’ll find this tidbit about the Profile Manager feature:

Profile Manager delivers simple, profile-based setup and management for Mac OS X Lion, iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices. It also integrates with your existing directory services and delivers automatic over-the-air profile updates using the Apple Push Notification service.

All that stuff I just said about how device management should work? I get the feeling Apple’s about to surprise us. It looks like they may even solve that pesky Wiki Server editing problem.

The race is on.

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