Who didn’t shudder, at the advent of the smartphone age, thinking about classes full of texters, bloggers and wiki-peekers? Fortunately, our worst fears never happened, and some adventurous teachers even incorporate the use of portable devices into lesson plans.
Still, smartphones remain more a distraction than a learning tool, at least in primary and secondary schools. Surely there are educators and parents who would like to turn back the clock on this trend.
Maybe they don’t have to. SOTI Inc., a long-time player in enterprise mobile-systems management, in January expanded into the education field, from kindergarten to post-secondary schooling. Schools choosing SOTI MobiControl — 15 in the United States so far, with pilot programs in Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, Turkey and Canada — are opting for centralized device control rather than smartphone banishment.
School administrators deploying SOTI management software require students carrying Apple iOS, Android and Microsoft Windows devices to install SOTI’s control app, said Aaron Davis, product marketing manager at SOTI. Presumably, devices found without the enabling app could be banned from campus by school officials.
With MobiControl, the machines might as well be another arm of educators, controlled centrally over an IP connection.
Administrators can create radically flexible electronics-use policies for an entire district, a facility, grade levels, classes — even individual students. Changes can be made in real time, just as staff can view what’s on each screen in real time. (Davis says the company is creating a way to alert people that their device is being monitored or remotely controlled.)
The range of options that MobiControl gives educators runs from wiping data on a lost machine, to zombie-fying devices (called kiosk mode) so that they only show content and functions directly related to school, to merely monitoring use.
No one at all should be seeing how-to-bully material, right? Done. Students in theater and music classes, unlike those in, say, trigonometry, would conceivably need to watch entertainment videos. Exception made.
MobiControl enables schools to distribute digital textbooks, assignments and prepackaged course-related content, too. Not only would that make the learning experience more consistent, but it would also make content licensing less of a guessing game.
Along the same lines, educators using SOTI software can procure apps, using a tool called Classroom App Catalog, to staff and the student body. As elsewhere, apps can be disseminated to whole districts all the way down to individual students, said Davis, a Research In Motion refugee.
MobiControl also gives schools more options for communicating with students, perhaps finally driving a stake into the heart of endless public-address drones. Administrators can send text, audio and video messages to all devices or any subset of devices. After all, how many people need to know that the Bowling Club’s bus will be 15 minutes late?
More darkly, administrators can remotely turn on any compliant device’s video camera and microphone.
Advanced Placement students in schools with SOTI software might get a shiver of recognition when they get to the chapter about North Korea’s controller-in-chief Kim Jung-Un, but there might also be some fist-bumping during parent-teacher conferences.
Assuming enough school districts can fit MobiControl into their budgets, company execs could be doing some celebrating themselves. (Davis said SOTI wouldn’t talk about prices until mid-March.) Corporate accounts have two options: Cloud-based and on-premises pricing models, and those are likely to be offered to schools, too.
But while there is some interest among schools for cloud-based setups, he said, national privacy laws – particularly involving children – sometimes makes storing personally identifiable information in foreign nations difficult. For that reason, Davis predicted most schools would choose on-premises pricing.
“Educators are looking for partners who can help them engage students and leverage (mobile) technology while encouraging student responsibility,” he said.
So are they cutting checks?
“Funding is a challenge. It’s a political thing as well in communities,” said Davis. “But schools realize they need to take advantage” of so many communication devices in students’ hands.
He admitted SOTI isn’t the first enterprise mobile-device manager product maker to get into education. AT&T is already there, for example. But, Davis, said, it is the one most focused on management down to individual students.
Speaking of individual students, some might get a degree of satisfaction knowing that all of the management intrusions that they are subject to can also be applied to teachers via their devices.
Jim Nash is a contributing writer to Tech Page One. Jim is an award-winning business, tech and science journalist. His work has appeared in ReadWrite, The New York Times, The Economist Group, Scientific American, DVICE.com and a raft of IT publications.