MDM software can help make mobile learning work more effectively for schools.

When you’re handing out 27,000 iPads and iPod Touches to your students and staff, having an easy way to manage all the devices—pushing out just the right applications that each person needs, and keeping track of each device’s contents and location—becomes critical.

To solve this challenge, the McAllen Independent School District has turned to a solution that is becoming increasingly common as more schools adopt mobile learning programs involving smart phones and tablets: mobile device management (MDM) software.

McAllen ISD has embarked on one of the most ambitious iPad rollouts in the nation. In February, this district at the southern tip of Texas started giving iPads and iPod Touches to its 25,000 students and 2,000 staff members.

“Our vision is, we need to give kids what they’ve been using all along, which is a mobile device,” said Pat Karr, the district’s coordinator for network services and support. He added: “We’re gonna scale [this program] extremely fast.”

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McAllen ISD already has distributed 6,000 iPads and iPods to its teachers and to students in certain schools. Karr said the district hopes to get the rest of the devices into students’ hands by October.

The program is called “TLC3,” for Transforming Learning in the Classroom, Campus, and Community. It aims to extend learning beyond the classroom and into students’ homes, using tools that will engage a generation of students who have grown up around digital devices.

Older students are getting iPads, and students in kindergarten through second grade will get iPod Touches. The district is working with local internet providers to make sure students’ families can get discounted web service at home, which is important in a community in which two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

To address parents’ concerns about their children’s safety, while continuing to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), McAllen is extending its internet filtering capabilities beyond the walls of its schools—and that’s where MDM technology comes into play: District officials still can manage the devices even after they leave the school building.

For example, McAllen is using MDM technology to push the configuration files for its Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client software to each mobile device. This software automatically routs a user’s internet connection through the district’s network, so all of the district’s filtering rules apply … whether the student is surfing the web at school, at home, or anywhere in between.

“We’re trying to protect our investment and also protect our children,” Karr explained.

How MDM technology works

MDM software resides either on a district’s servers or in the cloud. It communicates with each client device over a Wi-Fi or cellular connection, pushing out applications, updates, or instructions as set by an administrator.

The specific features of MDM software programs vary, but with most programs, school leaders can track the location of each mobile device, and they can wipe clean or lock down a device remotely if it’s stolen. “That’s a nice assurance around security,” said Kevin Carman, director of education field marketing at AT&T.

With most MDM software, administrators also can “whitelist” certain applications, or specify which applications can be downloaded to each device. That’s useful for making sure students don’t download “Angry Birds” and other games, or applications that aren’t age-appropriate.

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Mobile Learning: Effective Anytime, Anywhere Education

To manage a mobile device using MDM software, you have to download the MDM provider’s client app onto the machine, then enroll the device in your MDM program. Schools might approach this process in different ways.

As part of its iPad deployment, McAllen ISD asks each teacher to be responsible for ensuring that students download the client app and enroll their iPad before they take it off campus. Karr said administrators can run reports to show which students have done this, so they can follow up with those who haven’t if they need to.

“A major tool we use is education,” he said. “We must educate our users to be strong, responsible digital citizens. We have to change the mindset [of students so they know] that we are not managing them. On the contrary, we are managing the device and protecting our investment—both educationally and financially.”

A look at the MDM market

The marketplace for mobile device management software “is changing as quickly as the technology it enables,” says Info-Tech Research Group in a recent market study.

Popular makers of MDM software include Absolute Software, AirWatch, BoxTone, MobileIron, and Zenprise. In addition, some mobile technology companies have partnered with MDM providers to bundle these companies’ software with their own service plans.

For example, schools have the option of getting MDM capabilities with their mobile service plans from AT&T. The telecommunications giant has teamed up with various third-party MDM providers to offer mobile device management for tablets and smart phones using AT&T’s over-the-air network.

For schools, the advantage of taking this approach would be convenience, Carman said, as AT&T would handle the contracting and billing for the third-party MDM software license and would include these costs in its monthly service plan fees.

Another company, Odyssey Software of Rochester, N.Y., offers an MDM program called Athena. It’s an add-on program for users of Microsoft Systems Center that is designed to complement that software’s Configuration Manager, which helps IT staff manage laptop and desktop computers within a Windows environment.

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Mobile Learning: Effective Anytime, Anywhere Education

Athena takes the same Configuration Manager platform and console that Microsoft customers already are familiar with and extends its capabilities, so schools can use it to manage mobile devices as well—including iOS mobile devices from Apple, said Odyssey’s senior sales engineer, Doug Field.

MDM software in action

The Chicago Public Schools uses Absolute Software to manage hundreds of iPads, as well as some 10,000 Macintosh computers throughout the district.

The company’s Absolute Manage product began as a cross-platform program for managing Windows and Mac desktop and laptop computers, but with the proliferation of mobile devices and operating systems, the software now enables users to manage devices running iOS and Google’s Android mobile platform as well.

“The iPad is still a relatively new product, and we already have over 1,000 throughout the district,” said Talha Basit, client software and systems manager for the Chicago Public Schools, in a case study. “The fact that we will be able to manage these devices using the system we are already familiar with is really an unexpected and most welcome surprise.”

McAllen ISD uses MDM software from AirWatch to manage its thousands of iPad devices. Besides Apple’s iOS, AirWatch enables schools to manage devices running on Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, webOS, and other platforms, too.

Karr said he has been impressed with AirWatch’s “multi-tenancy” design, which gives administrators the ability to manage a mobile device rollout in a very hierarchical way.

“AirWatch provides a granular mechanism that allows us to ‘profile’ each user or group and [give it a] different application and device setting,” he explained. “For example: A user enrolled into the High School group would have a different set of apps and configurations than one enrolled in the Elementary School group. You can also go further by creating grade-level groups within these higher-tiered groups.”

He continued: “I’ve chosen to have three different [top-level] groups: Administration, Faculty, and Students. Within those groups, I have High School, Middle School, and Elementary School. Within those [subgroups], I have the [specific] campuses assigned to each level.” Administrators at each campus can manage the device configuration they want at their own school, without needing district-level approval.

An optional mobile content management system, called the Secure Content Locker, can distribute documents to mobile devices securely over the air according to the settings the system administrator has provided. The software asks users if they want to download the document to their mobile device or view it online.

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“This gives us a lot of flexibility to use documents either online or offline,” Karr said.

As McAllen ISD continues to distribute iPads to every student, administrators can rest easy knowing they have control over the apps students are using and the websites they’re visiting. Teachers and students also are excited.

“Our [internet] traffic has increased threefold already,” Karr said, just from giving devices to a quarter of the district’s students. “And students are saying: I’m glad I’m going to class.”

Questions to ask when choosing MDM software

There are several kinds of mobile device management programs on the market; here are some questions to ask when choosing a program that’s right for your schools.

• What mobile operating systems are supported?

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are pretty standard, but some products manage additional platforms, too, such as BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, or webOS. If you can afford it, consider a system that manages as wide a variety of platforms as possible, because this will give you the flexibility to add new devices or manage Bring Your Own Device initiatives.

• What advanced features does the software include?

Group management and provisioning, visibility of installed apps, and the ability to push out or block certain apps are standard features of MDM software, but what other features does the software offer? These can include browser control (the ability to disable features and allow or block certain sites on the mobile web browser), GPS location services, performance monitoring, and advanced security management (such as jailbreak detection or verifying a remote wipe).

• Does the company and its solution cater to schools?

Some MDM providers have a larger presence in the education space than others. Companies that market their products specifically to schools might be more likely to understand the unique needs of educators and how these differ from the corporate market.

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Mobile Learning: Effective Anytime, Anywhere Education