Flying High with TabPilot

A tablet management system specifically for the school environment.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Jarrett Volzer of tabpilotWhile consulting for schools that were experimenting with Android tablets, Jarrett Volzer began to seek a good tablet management system that would work well in the school environment. Existing products were geared towards corporations and were designed primarily for use by IT professionals. They seemed far less than ideal for allowing teachers to control what students could access on classroom tablets. That’s when the idea of TabPilot was born. A cloud-based management system that puts teachers in control of entire sets of classroom tablets, teachers can choose from thousands of apps available on the Android platform. Students see only the apps configured by their teacher and are locked out of system settings. Schools can choose to use affordable TabPilot tablets or their own third party tablets. Here, Jarrett, founder and president, provides the breakdown.

Victor: What prompted you to develop TabPilot? 
TabPilot logoJarrett: We were already helping schools with tablet hardware and knew that they needed a management solution. Through our evaluations, we quickly realized that the MDM (mobile device management) products on the market were not well suited for the school environment. So we developed a plan to build TabPilot.

Victor: So TabPilot is not an MDM? What is it and how does it differ?
Jarrett: TabPilot is a Tablet Management System that allows teachers and administrators to lock-down student tablets so that students can only access apps and resources assigned by their teacher. TabPilot was designed from the ground up as a school-focused system that’s easy to use by both IT administrators and teachers. It’s a cloud-based system so there’s nothing for administrators to install and maintain. TabPilot also includes a complete app distribution system.

TabPilot is different from an MDM in significant ways: MDM systems tend to be geared exclusively for use by IT staff, rather than teachers. They generally don’t allow a different setup for each class. They tend to be quite technical and focus on corporate IT needs (file encryption, password policies, etc.), since that’s where MDM products originated. Because the needs of education are very different, we created our own product.

TabPilot provides a user interface on the student tablets that will display only apps, content, and web links configured by the teacher in the cloud-based management portal. We felt it was important to have a tool for teachers, not just IT staff, to control what was available in their classrooms. We wanted each teacher to be able to make those decisions for their individual classes.

Victor: What issues, challenges, and/or problems were you trying to solve?
TabPilot teacherJarrett: There were three main problems. First, teachers experimenting with tablets in the classroom told us that students were getting off-task running all sorts of apps or changing system settings. Second, we heard that there can be an overwhelming number of apps for students to sift through to find the one or two that their teacher wanted them to work on. This was especially true in the early grades and on shared devices where each teacher downloads a variety of apps that all end up on the same devices. Third, we heard of headaches with the constant need to use USB connections to try to constantly “sync” devices.

Our solution is TabPilot, a system that replaces the standard tablet interface with one that displays only the items configured by the teacher. TabPilot removes all other distractions and other apps from the screen. This tablet interface is easily configured by the teacher through a simple web page and syncs all the tablets wirelessly.

Victor: What’s something interesting about its development history? 
Jarrett: One interesting aspect of developing TabPilot came early in our efforts. Our original plan was to create a cross-platform system that could manage both iPads and Android tablets. Well, it didn’t take our developers long to discover that the iOS platform is so “closed” that we simply could not do the type of lock-down that we desired and really take over control of the devices the way that we felt necessary for classroom use. Without Apple allowing developers to access the functions we needed, such as locking out the home button so that our interface could not be exited, we realized we would have to develop exclusively for the more “open” Android platform.

Part of what makes this interesting is that we’ve found that some of the educators who come to us with the most enthusiasm about our offering are those who have tried small implementations of iPads and had a nightmare of a time controlling and maintaining them. They are exhausted from the amount of time spent in tools like Apple Configurator or with USB sync cables and MacBook’s to keep the tablets in order. Not only do they love the level of control we can offer with TabPilot, but they also seem to like the choice of lower cost devices too!

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
TabPilot pushJarrett: My own background is in IT, with a large portion of that spent supporting schools. Having been involved with many schools over the years helped give me some good ideas as to how a system like TabPilot needs to function.

Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is benefits? 
Jarrett: TabPilot is all about control…at both a teacher and IT level. A benefit of TabPilot is that the school can be successful implementing mobile technologies while eliminating worries that the devices will be a distraction rather than a learning tool. Teachers can be at ease learning to integrate tablet technology into their classrooms knowing that students can be kept on-task with TabPilot.

Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?
Jarrett: I’ve already discussed the MDM systems and how they generally don’t meet the school-specific needs because they have such a heavy focus on corporate IT needs and use by IT staff rather than teacher level control. Beyond those systems, there are a couple of tablet-based systems that market to schools, but they tend to use a more closed approach, tying their system to their own proprietary tablet hardware, content, app stores, LMS systems, or even web-filtering systems. They also usually require a local school server, so they are not truly cloud-based, adding to the cost, complexity, and need for more IT support.

TabPilot remains the most open of any tablet management system, allowing the school to choose a “best of breed” solution. With TabPilot, the school can use apps or content from any source, such as Google Play or the upcoming Google Play for Education. They can choose any LMS, any student-response system, or any web filter they like, and manage them all through TabPilot. Most importantly schools can choose the tablet hardware they prefer, whether it’s the popular Google Nexus 7 tablets, or something from Samsung, Acer, or Lenovo, and they can mix-and-match or switch at any time. Sure, we offer our own line of tablets with TabPilot pre-installed, but our customers are
never locked into using them.

Victor: Tell me more about the tablets you offer.
TabPilot Tablet-FrontStandJarrett: We currently offer a dual-core 10″ tablet with a bright screen and long battery life for $280. The tablet offers good performance at a great price. The best part is that it comes with TabPilot pre-installed and already configured with a TabPilot account.

We’re getting ready to announce a new quad-core tablet with a high-definition 2048 X 1536 screen, the same as the iPad Retina display, and wireless HDMI for mirroring the screen directly to a large display or projector. This new device will still be near the $300 mark. You and your readers are actually the first to hear about it, as we’ve not officially announced this anywhere yet! We expect to release it in January.

Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it, any interesting feedback, reaction to it? 
TabPilot classroomJarrett: The reaction to TabPilot has been positive. What’s been so fun about building TabPilot is that we’re getting direct feedback that we can immediately incorporate into the product by way of new features or capabilities. Each implementation of tablets in a school or district is a little different, which can bring up slightly different needs, whether it’s on the 1-to-1 side of implementation or different types of shared-used implementations. This really allows us to enhance TabPilot’s feature set in different ways.

One great example of this sort of feedback is when teachers told us that they loved being able to add links to web pages right on the home screen of the tablets with our Web Links feature, but that they wanted a way to restrict the students to accessing only the site in the link. This led us to develop an add-on product called FocalPoint Secure Browser. With FocalPoint, the students can’t get to other web sites except the one specified by the teacher. In fact, there’s not even an address bar to allow them to type in a different URL. In a sense, it turns a web site into a dedicated learning activity. Additionally, FocalPoint provides a secure way to administer online test since students can’t navigate away to other sites.

Victor: Anything else in the works? additional products?
Jarrett: Yeah, actually, there are some cool new TabPilot features on the way even as we speak. I can’t give the specific details, but I can tell you that we’re building features that allow teachers to monitor the screens of student tablets, freeze student screens to get attention up-front, and other types of screen broadcasting or control capabilities. Ultimately, these will become part of an add-on feature pack, but we’ll be debuting a couple of them right in our main TabPilot Tablet Manager package in our November release!

Victor: Your thoughts on educational technology in general these days? 
TabPilot schoolJarrett: It’s an exciting and interesting time in the education world. Tablets and mobile devices in general have swept into the schools faster than any technology in the past — far faster than computers. In some cases, it has caught the schools off-guard and many have had to try to figure it out quickly. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years.

Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days? 
Jarrett: I would definitely try to impress upon educators, administrators, and IT directors to plan carefully for ALL of the aspects of putting mobile technology in the schools and not be taken in by some great price on some hardware alone. There’s a lot more to plan for beyond just the raw cost of some hardware devices. They need to plan for extras like protective cases, insurance, storage and charging solutions such as carts and cabinets,
teacher training, IT training, device repair and replacement budget and more.

Unfortunately, we’ve had quite a few schools come to us after-the-fact, having bought a bunch of raw hardware to throw into the classroom and later realized all the missing pieces. We’ve seen schools buy a ton of cheap hardware and only later realize that the devices are only one small part of the whole plan, but they’ve spent all their money.

Victor: Anything more you’d like to add or emphasize? 
Jarrett: I will just point out that we do offer a free trial of our TabPilot Tablet Manager. Any educator with a few Android tablets available for testing can try our system. I appreciate being invited to interview!

Victor: Alright thank you Jarrett!

Jarrett: Thank you, Victor!

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