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Apple wants to help parents, teachers get over distance learning hurdles

The company has launched Schoolwork 2.0 for iPads, an update to its software that lets teachers manage assignments and handouts.

Apple CEO Tim Cook checks out one of the demos at the company's education event in Chicago two years ago. 
James Martin/CNET

Education during a pandemic looks nothing like what we're used to. But that chaos has opened the door for tech companies developing remote-learning tools, including Apple

The iPhone giant has launched a remote learning resource site, created a new education video series and introduced coaching sessions to give educators (and parents) tips about teaching. It also improved its iCloud collaboration capabilities to let people share entire folders and added features to its iWork software like the ability to edit offline.

And now, Apple has updated a couple of its education tools, including releasing the second generation of its Schoolwork app. That software, unveiled two years ago, lets teachers manage assignments and information (which Apple calls Handouts) over the cloud. They can check student progress and share class materials without actually being near their students. 

These updates come at a complicated time for education. Schools across the country closed this spring in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, and it's unclear when they'll reopen -- or what they'll look like when they do. Teachers are developing remote lesson plans, kids are dialing into classes on Zoom and parents are supervising coursework in between work meetings. But this new dynamic has put a strain on working parents, teachers unaccustomed to distance learning and families who don't have reliable internet, leading to what some call a potential education breakdown

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In response, Apple on Tuesday updated software used inside schools, like its Classroom app, for times when students can actually return to schools. The technology lets teachers launch the same app on every student iPad at the same time or monitor what students are doing on their devices. 

Apple designed Schoolwork 2.0 to include features found in other iPad OS apps, like Files, and to speed up navigation around the software. There's a new Handout library with a source list on the left side that makes it easier to navigate to different classes or the student's library with drafts and favorites. On the right are cards with things like reminders for a field trip or a math assignment.


Apple has redesigned its Schoolworks app to take advantage of iPad OS capabilities. 


The company also redesigned the Handout detail view on Schoolwork so a teacher can quickly see what percentage of students finished an assignment, how long it took and if anyone was an outlier. That lets teachers quickly identify students who may have fallen behind or ones who find the work too easy. 

With students now all working remotely, Apple also added a key new feature to Schoolwork -- the ability for a teacher to immediately send a message or call a student using FaceTime. That lets an educator quickly get in touch with a student who may need extra help. (But those icons don't show up on the student's side of the app. The easy communication only goes one way so teachers don't get bombarded by calls or messages.)

Apple's history lesson

Apple has a long history in the education market. Macintosh computers have been used in schools for decades, and Apple still gives students and teachers discounts on its products. In 2007, it launched iTunes U to provide free content such as lectures, language lessons and lab demonstrations from US colleges including Stanford University and MIT. Schools quickly moved to buy iPads and adjust their curriculum to use more of Apple's products. 

The company all but owned the education market, but things fell apart. Schools found iPads didn't quite do what they needed, and they were pricey to distribute to all students. Google, with is inexpensive Chromebooks and internet-based technology, soon became the favored supplier for schools across the globe. 

Apple didn't give up. Two years ago, the company unveiled an ambitious plan to overhaul its education offerings. Apple held a flashy and unconventional event in a Chicago high school where it introduced a $329 iPad and a suite of tools to make it easier for teachers to use Apple technology in their classrooms. 

"At Apple we care deeply about education because we love kids and we love teachers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the March 2018 event. "We know our products can help bring out the creative genius in every kid."

While it's likely still too early to tell if Apple's made huge strides in education, its less expensive devices have proved to be popular. And it continues to update its software to respond to educators' requests. 

With this year's updated Classroom app, classes created using the Apple School Manager automatically sync to a teacher's Apple ID so those courses are available as soon as the educator signs in. The app also adds tweaks like the ability to pinch-to-zoom and share class information using AirPlay on an Apple TV

And Apple made some changes to iPads that are shared inside a classroom. In the past, students had to sign into an iPad with their Apple ID to see all of their personal coursework and information. But that often wasn't necessary for young students who needed to complete quick lessons. 

Now students can set up temporary sessions to do work. They don't have to have Apple accounts, and they can get right into the lessons much quicker. When they sign out, all data is removed from the iPad. 

Apple on Tuesday introduce the Schoolwork and Classroom updates in the App Store. They previously were available in beta, which lets Apple screen for bugs and incorporate feedback from early users and developers.