Will iPad fail in school?

Ryan Lawson, director of technology, would like to get his hands on more than 700 iPads for the entire student body at Brother Rice High School, a private all-boys Catholic school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. It would be a crowning achievement after five years of searching for the perfect laptop for students.

But the iPad has a serious failing grade: no remote monitoring.

Lawson sent an e-mail to Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, as well as his Apple rep, asking if Apple plans to bring this enterprise-class feature to market. No response from Jobs, but the Apple rep told him that a lot of people have asked for remote monitoring although he’s not aware of any specific Apple projects.

“Now that could mean it’s a top secret Apple program that’s coming out tomorrow–who knows with that company,” says Lawson. Nevertheless, he’s left waiting for more options.

Apple Goes to School

The education market straddles the line between consumers and the enterprise. In other words, it occupies the gray space of Apple’s dominant strength and notorious weakness. History shows that students comprise the most critical market for Apple. As young people grow up with Apple products, they naturally take those products into their adult lives.

Over the next couple years, Apple will need to shore up its iPad for education lest the Cupertino company risk losing this core market. Apple’s education market has been under siege lately from cheap netbooks. Yau-Man Chan, CTO of the chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley, told me last summer that he saw a rise in netbooks around campus among undergrads.

With its similar price point, the iPad was supposed to reverse this trend, say industry analyst. So how is the iPad faring? At the high school level, not so well. The iPad holds a lot of promise, says Lawson, but its lack of remote monitoring features keeps the iPad from entering the classroom.

A Wired High School

Founded in 1960, Brother Rice recently renovated many of its classrooms filling them with state-of-the-art technology. Almost every classroom has a digital projector and Wi-Fi, and most classrooms have touchscreen SMART whiteboards that let teachers deliver lessons and write in digital ink.

Over the last five years, Brother Rice has been exploring a one-to-one laptop scenario whereby all students would have a laptop that connects to the teacher’s master laptop, as well as whiteboards and the Internet. The laptop would have to be cheap, ultra-portable and manageable.

The big idea is to have students conduct browser-based research, participate in discussions, take virtual field trips at institutions around the world, use app tools for math and science, write essays, take notes, and read e-books and PDF handouts.

“So far, we haven’t found the right solution,” Lawson says. “We flirted with netbooks, and at the time netbook batteries just weren’t there with a two or three hour battery life. When you have 700 boys going all day, you’ve got to have a 10-hour battery life. I don’t have 30 [power outlets] per classroom, and even if I did I’d probably blow fuses.”

Two Big iPad Flaws

In early January, John Birney, president and former director of technology at Brother Rice, told Lawson that he wanted the iPad to be the laptop of choice. Lawson replied, “Please let Apple announce the product before we announce a program based on it.”

When the iPad was released two months later, Lawson’s long search seemed to be over. The iPad had almost everything Brother Rice wanted in a student laptop. It cost only $500, and the battery boasted 10 hours. Moreover, Brother Rice’s Citrix server could deliver Office 2003 and Office 2007 on the iPad, Lawson says.

Lawson bought one for teachers to play with. Their response was unanimously troublesome: Though teachers loved the iPad, they warned they couldn’t use them in classrooms unless they could remotely monitor student activity. “They needed a remote access control panel to watch what Johnny, Timmy and Billy were all doing on their screens at any given time,” Lawson says.

Lawson looked into remote monitoring for the iPad and read up on the enterprise features of the upcoming iOS 4–but he found a solution wanting. He says iOS 4’s enterprise features have more to do with mass configuration, wireless app distribution, device wiping, and multi-tasking support, but not remote monitoring.

Apple does have remote monitoring built into Mac OS X, which is based on Apple’s dual-screen VNC technology. This lets IT admins set remote access passwords and turn on remote access. “It would be perfect for the iPad,” Lawson says. “But iOS 4 is very locked down.”

Waiting for Apple

Remote monitoring on the iPad, where a program starts on boot and runs in the background, needs to be part of the operating system and not just an app that can be turned off, Lawson explains. That’s why he believes remote monitoring will likely need to come from Apple itself, perhaps as a service built into the iPad.

Another hurdle to iPad adoption: High school academic book publishers are slowly moving to an e-book format compatible with the iPad. At Brother Rice, parents spend up to US$500 a year on books. If enough e-books were available on the iPad, Lawson says, that cost could be dropped to $150 a year, making the return on investment (ROI) of an iPad inside of two years.

Brother Rice teachers collectively use some 200 books. “Right now, only six books are e-book ready,” Lawson says. “I’ve talked to textbook publishers, and they told me they’re working on it. The magic number for ROI is about half of the 200 books. By September of 2012, it’ll definitely be there and maybe earlier.”

Book publishers are getting their act together, but will Apple? Lawson’s one-to-one laptop initiative has a self-imposed deadline of next fall, giving him 15 months for Apple to build remote monitoring into the iPad. There’s always a chance that a third-party developer can come up with a solution, he says. Or maybe Google, Microsoft or Hewlett-Packard will deliver a product with remote monitoring.

For now, an iPad without this enterprise feature is a deal breaker. “We can’t put in something if we can’t do any monitoring,” Lawson says.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige.

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