ipad01 008Would Apple please do something about heavy-handed DRM and other K-12 e-book hassles—plus additional annoyances?

I’d love to use my school’s class set of iPads more for e-reading and learning in the classroom. Granted, for the world at large, some interesting non-Apple options exist. If privacy issues get clarified, for example, Chromebooks may be a good option for many schools. And of course, Amazon’s tablets are more affordable than anyone else’s. But we’re not there yet, either within or outside Appledom.

My dream system would be Web-based and allow for easy customization by busy teachers, but how about the present? What is working, and what’s not? What is available, and what’s not? I hope my humble little case study will offer some food for thought to those who want to design e-books and learning apps for education.

1) What is Available?

In my case, a set of 16 iPad 2 devices. I have resisted repeated requests all year to update the OS, and I am trying to keep them running as long as I can on what’s installed right now. I am worried that iPad 2 cannot handle Apple’s latest firmware.

2) What Issues Am I Dealing With?


This has been my biggest obstacle in fully rolling out a school-wide e-book program. It seems Apple differentiates between device limits (namely, how many devices one can register to an iTunes account) and content limits (namely, how many devices can play iTunes-purchased media). We had no problem registering all 16 iPads, but we can only play iTunes-purchased media—including iBooks titles—on five of them. This makes it very hard to purchase books for use school-wide.

I am pondering alternatives, including a student Dropbox account where I can place DRM-free books from Smashwords and Project Gutenberg which students can load into iBooks via the Dropbox app. But naturally, this will limit the pool of titles I can buy, and many books the kids want to read will be excluded since they cannot be purchased without DRM.

I have made some efforts to modify our iTunes account to a corporate system, but these were unsuccessful. And the bottom line is, it shouldn’t be necessary. If the rainbow unicorn solution is this difficult to figure out—if I have to visit an Apple store to do it, or reach some obscure department of Apple tech support—I can tell you that 90 percent of teachers simply won’t. They lack access to an Apple store, or they don’t have a dedicated IT staffer to help them facilitate it. It simply won’t get done, and the kids will read on paper until they are old enough to purchase e-books at home.


The other issue is, it’s taking far too much time to keep these iPads running smoothly. We’ve enabled the settings for auto-downloads of updates and new app purchases. But periodically, an iPad will decide that we have not put in the password lately and ask us to do it again. No updates or apps get downloaded until we notice that it wants one, and satisfy it.

The problem is that so many people use these devices, most of them children under 7 years old. There is no way I’ll hear about it every time we get an error message. So the updates grind to a halt until I go in to do something more major. I went to put some apps into groupings yesterday to clean the homescreens up a little and fully half of them prompted me for the password when I tried to run updates.

I understand the need for security. It was one of the issues I brought up on the Chromebooks front. But that needs to be balanced with the need for practicality. Automatically download the updates is a useless preference for me unless I can trust the iPad to actually do it. It needs to happen seamlessly, as a background process, and not require two hours of hands-on time just to put in passwords and wait for the downloads which should have happened overnight to finish.


Sometimes, an app needs to be complex. I understand that. But I wish that those who wrote for the education market would pay less attention to needless frills and more attention to practicality. Our aging iPads have no more space. We can’t download something new without discarding something old. And on our less-than-perfect wi-fi network, these large downloads take time.

And iBooks is no better. We downloaded a joke book in one of my classes, and it had a little button on every page that made a laughing sound when it was pressed. Funny, sure. But I’m sure it increased the size of the book file. Was it necessary?

It’s frustrating when I try and get a new app or book to use with my classes, and it takes so long to download that nobody can use it when needed. I downloaded a new app just before one of my SK classes—I have them back to back, so I was in the room, with the iPads on and running, for a full hour. Only half of the iPads had the app fully downloaded by the time we were done. Should it take that long to download one app?

These are difficulties that Apple—or Google, or Amazon—could solve right now. I’m not talking about the fantasy perfect ecosystem of the future here. Some small firmware changes, and our admittedly prior-generation gadgets could last a lot longer and be a lot more efficient to use.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. I see the conundrum. You fear updating to the latest version of iOS where a slew of school related features that might address your concerns may be found. I would find a way to test your suspicion that the iPad 2 can’t handle the latest version of iOS rather than just assume.
    If you have an OS X machine, you could upgrade it to the server version for 25 or 50 USD (forgot which). This should bring to your school the ability to download updates to the server once and then to your iPads over the possibly faster and more reliable local area network (LAN).
    I haven’t actually used any of these things so there may be more to it than I know. Worth a look I think.

  2. I do agree with most of your comments, especially the ones about DRM and passwords. Those surprise me, especially with Apple’s long history in the education market. I would have thought they’d have easy solutions for those.

    The one I don’t agree with, necessarily, is your requesting fewer features to make smaller files. I’m not an IOS programmer but I am a retired programmer and I do know that when you write a program you try to include lots of features to please as many people as possible. If you focus too much on the old, somewhat out of date models you can’t please those with newer devices.

    Also the book with the big red button and the laugh probably wouldn’t have been a lot smaller without that. I just wrote a Bingo calling program for the retirement home I live in, using one of the tenants voices to read out the numbers. That involves 75 different sound files, each probably as large as your laugh, and they total 4 meg in size. If I’d used MP3 they’d have been a fraction of that. I was lazy and size didn’t matter in this case so I used WAV files.

    Very likely there’s 1 red button and one laugh file used over and over and their overall size isn’t much greater than a page full of text with a picture. In fact likely a lot less. Most of my letter sound files are under 50k and they’re not much shorter than a typical laugh.

    As for the speed of downloading programs the bottleneck was very likely your internet connection. That’s not really something Apple can do anything about with their DRM concerns.

    Again, I do agree with most of what you said and I’m only trying to mention the things I don’t agree with, not to be argumentative but to try to be helpful.


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