Locking Down Student iPads vs. Trusting Students to Behave

When our school began its 1-to-1 iPad program for our fifth through eighth grade students, we were faced with the same decision every school faces: just how much do we lock down these devices? We had already written up a solid acceptable use policy (that all students and parents had to sign), we had robust internet filtering at the school, we could monitor the iPads via Meraki, we had turned on age restrictions for all features, and we had collected the appropriate insurance money for repairs. But we still had to decide: what do we lock down on the device itself? Facetime? iMessage? The App Store?

There were two competing schools of thought:

  1. Complete Lockdown: Several of the teachers wanted the devices set to the maximum level of lockdown. They didn't want any distractions available: no Facetime, no App Store, no iMessage, and maybe no Safari (to be replaced with a more restrictive browser). Benefits: This would ensure the devices were only used for schoolwork, that students were on-task in class, and that the iPads could not be used for bullying or social networking when students take them home. Problems: Distributing new apps (especially free ones) mid-year would be a huge hassle, students wouldn't be as excited about the iPads, no chance of students uncovering new and creative apps that teachers could then adopt, and any alternative web browser might block necessary web resources for research classes.
  2. Allow Some Freedom: Others (including the administration) wanted the students to have relative freedom to use all the features of the iPad, especially outside of school. They wanted the students to feel ownership and excitement over the devices. They hoped that teachers would maintain order in class through effective classroom management, instead. Benefits: It would be a lot easier to distribute new apps or do internet research and students might discover awesome apps or other creative solutions for assignments and assessments that could then be shared with others. Facetime could be used to work on group projects at home. Problems: It would be much harder to maintain focus in class and keep kids off games when they weren't supposed to be on them. Parents just will not stop iMessaging their kids during school hours. Seriously.

After much internal debate, we decide to go with Option B for our first year. Although we had age restrictions in place, students had relative freedom to use iMessage, Facetime, and the App Store however they wanted outside of class.

Although you might think this would lead to total anarchy, it actually worked out pretty well that first year. Our biggest problems ended up being cracked screens, which have nothing to do with the amount of restrictions in place. Sure, there were teachers who were upset that they had to work a little harder to ensure students weren't getting distracted, but it was all very managable. Furthermore, the benefits were great. A teacher could easily tell an entire class to download a free app without needing to involve the IT Department. When given assignments, students would go out and find amazing new apps that allowed them to do their work in exciting and creative ways. We discovered dozens of new apps thanks to the students. Our filtering and Meraki monitoring ensured that nothing really bad happened with the iPads. Things were great.

But then Year 2 started and things got difficult. As students are wont to do, they became comfortable with their iPads. Rule violations started slipping through the cracks (as you would expect, given that we had to monitor 300 iPads). Students started overloading on more and more games. Teachers started raising valid concerns about how distracted some of their students were. Parents were mad that their kids weren't using the iPad to do homework after school. It became a huge mess. The prior benefits became less and less useful and fewer new school-related apps were being discovered or downloaded.

We've implemented a new procedure for the rest of this school year to help calm things down. Any teacher who sees a student using their iPad for something they shouldn't during class time will pick it up, delete all the games, and turn on the restrictions and remove the app store. Once this happens once or twice in a class, the rest of the kids tend to behave. We also emailed parents to let them know that we would be happy to turn on these restrictions for any student abusing their iPad privileges at home (or parents could do it themselves).

Next year, sadly, we will be forced to lock down the iPads in advance. We really enjoyed the enthusiasm and sense of discovery when the students weere appropriately searching for useful apps for the classroom and assignments, but it has become too much to monitor. If we had more staff or if we had fewer iPads to monitor, we would keep them slightly unlocked, but with our current numbers it just isn't an efficient use of time.

Moral of the story? Save your administration, your teachers, and your IT staff a lot of stress and just lock down the App Store, iMessage, and Facetime right from the beginning. You can always unlock a few of the features as a reward or a privilege as the year progresses (and then remove the privilege for students that abuse it). The only exception would be if you have a really small student population using iPads and can be sure to keep on top of any violations.

Feel free to share your experiences, stories, or recommendations in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Locking Down Student iPads vs. Trusting Students to Behave

  1. So, Reading your article was like looking in the Mirror, We are completing out second year and have had many of the same problems. We are 1:1 with grades 9-12 so this year we decided that Freshmen had enough to worry about so we locked them down to only school apps. But the problem comes when the teacher decides to use a different app, The student can’t just download it, Meraki can’t tag them to use it since they don’t have the app store… Now the Gaming has got out of control school wide and we are considering a lockdown of all devices next year. My concern as the IT Director and the one that manages the iPad, I am going to have to turn on and off the App store restrictions several times a month to keep up with updates and new apps the teachers want….. Any suggestions from others on a solution? We are looking at Casper Focus but as you mentioned, Thats a lot of money!

    • For the updates, if you go to Settings –> App Store Settings in iOS 7, you can turn on automatic background updates. If you do this for the student iPads, their apps will update even though the App Store is invisible to them (since you locked it down).

      What we are going to try next year (and which I will report on here if it works or not) is basically just task the teachers with letting us know all the apps they plan to use for the year before the school year starts. They’ve had 2 years of iPad usage to get a general idea of what they want, so they should be able to tell us the bulk of the apps they need installed on the student iPads before the kids arrive. Then we will have to figure out some policy for adding new apps as the year progresses. Perhaps once a quarter or once a semester we will turn the App store back on, load up any new things that have been requested, then lock it back down, or something.

      The key is to definitely not turn it into a “every time any teacher wants anything new” sort of process, or you will be overwhelmed. Also, the more you go back and forth the more likely you are to mess up the process and accidentally leave a kid, a class, or a grade level with unlocked iPads and not realize it. We are also eager to hear if any other schools have cheap/free alternative solutions to this very predicament.

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Heavy-Duty iPad Cases | SchooliPads

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