Apple's upcoming media event isn't scheduled until next week. I've already gone on record about my views about the so-called iPad mini's potential. I think with the mini, Apple has a big chance to push forward the education initiative the company introduced earlier this year.
That's why Amazon's Whispercast announcement this week, detailing a solution for managing a fleet of Kindles, matters. Amazon Kindle VP David Limp described the new technology: "Whispercast [is] a free, scalable solution for school and business administrators to centrally manage thousands of Kindles and wirelessly distribute Kindle books...to their users."
A free online tool, Whispercast enables central content administration for procuring, distributing and monitoring Kindle books. With it, schools and districts can adopt Kindle technology across their entire system. What's more, administrators can set acceptable use policies, such as blocking social networks and web browsers, keeping students from accessing Facebook with their Whispercast devices.
We don't know what Apple's event will cover, but this kind of large-scale deployment sets a bar that Apple needs to meet -- soon if not next week. At TUAW, we believe that winning the classroom will win the tablet. If Apple cannot respond to Whispercast, they cannot win that classroom.
Apple's enterprise tools for iOS and support for mobile device management have advantages for big organizations, but the textbook (and app) volume purchasing setup doesn't have quite the fluidity of what Whispercast will deliver. MDM at a basic level is doable with Apple's Mountain Lion Server, but larger deployments may require extensive IT support and investment, which most schools don't have at their disposal. In contrast, Whispercast is cloud-based and free. (There are several cloud-based MDM options for iOS, to be sure, with Meraki, Zenprise and MaaS360 among them, but they aren't free.)
Whispercast is far from an education panacea, however. While Whispercast offers large-scale setup and deployment, it seems to lack program analysis: tracking, testing and assessment of student success. Whispercast modernizes the textbook but it doesn't directly address the learning process. That's an area in which Apple has shown leadership.
In January, Apple attempted to reimagine the textbook. It introduced iBooks Author, a design tool meant to revolutionize e-book layout and creation. With numerous technologies to engage students, its textbooks are certainly more exciting and beautiful. But these enhancements still lack an important component of digital education.
Although iBooks Author provides an option to create review widgets, it lacks any communication capabilities to send quiz results or assessments back to teachers. Third parties have worked on creating solutions, but the purely educational component of bidirectional assessment seems to be an area that remains up in the air. Meanwhile, companies focused on learning management and delivery systems for adult/institutional education (outside the iBooks ecosystem) are pushing the tablet envelope forward at a frantic pace, and the largest higher-ed trial of bulk purchasing for e-textbooks is happening without Apple's direct participation.
We believe that a truly successful tablet for K-12 and higher ed needs to command respect in all the natural areas of educational support: from document distribution, to platform control, to lesson planning, to assessment. Whispercast is a big step forward. We can't wait to see how Apple responds.