How We Distributed a Personalized iOS Curriculum to Students Across the U.S.

When I think back to elementary school, one of the few things I remember clearly is being frustrated at the pace of class. Some things (like fractions) I just got, while others (like measurements) never quite stuck. In both cases, the rest of the class never quite matched my rhythm. It’s only now, as an adult, that I can see how difficult it is to manage an entire class of kids. Mrs. Jenkins and Mr. Hermes and my other teachers had to make compromises in how they taught, even though those compromises annoyed me (and many my classmates, I’m sure) at the time.

When we talk about personalized education, we mean giving students the chance to learn subjects at the level they’re ready to understand (regardless of the levels their classmates are at) and to work at their own pace through those subjects. As you might imagine, personalized education is an effective way for students to learn, but it is also historically difficult to achieve — in the past, such individualized instruction was beyond the resources of most public school districts. The rise of devices like the iPad has made it possible to scale such adaptive and effective teaching to students all across the country. (If you’re curious to see the data, a representative sample of the results in our 100+ mostly-public school districts drawn from third-party, non-profit assessments is available on our case study page.)

Providing that personal instruction through technology is at the center of what we do here at eSpark.

The Curriculum

Any curriculum that’s going to teach students to use English and math has to meet a high bar: it has to be comprehensive and it has to be effective. Speaking from both experience and data, effective means more than just containing the right information — it’s also important for the material to be interesting. That’s a tall order!

Fortunately for us, we haven’t had to take it all on ourselves. Our eSpark team is filled with former teachers, and one of the tasks these amazing educators have taken on is finding the best educational apps on the iOS App Store. Hundreds of thousands of app developers have created some outstanding, creative educational games and apps. By finding ones that teach specific skills and weaving them together, we’ve created a curriculum far stronger and more varied in style, theme, and content than any one company could create on its own. (Simultaneously, near to my heart, we’re supporting many great independent app developers through the purchases our partner schools make.)

Of course, a curriculum composed of a thousand iPad apps brings its own challenge: iPads have limited space, and schools have limited budgets. We can’t just load everything a student might ever need onto her tablet. So when Sarah finishes second grade fractions and is ready for second grade geometry, how do we make sure she has the right material?

The Challenge

Getting the right content to the right iPads at the right time was the central technical challenge of my first two and a half years at eSpark. It’s a difficult but fascinating problem with a complex solution.

We had to work with a lot of constraints:

  • iOS is a famously sandboxed environment — apps are quite limited in what they can do. Automatically installing other apps from the App Store is not an available permission.
  • Any solution that requires kindergarteners who can’t yet read (let alone navigate the App Store) to do anything complicated is out. (Designing a product for users who can’t yet read or reason is a fascinating challenge for our product and UI teams. You’ll hear more about that in later entries.)
  • Any content distribution system has to be able to scale up to tens and hundreds of thousands of iPads.

The Solution

So how did we do it? We learned from and iterated on solution after solution until we found one that works for our schools and ourselves. Last April I gave a talk on these challenges and how we overcame them to the Northwestern University chapter of ACM in Evanston, IL. Check it out!

Though we put the final touches on our current mobile device management (MDM) system that spring as I gave the talk, it’s only now that we can claim success.

This school year, we’ve installed almost 8,300,000 iTunes apps on over 43,000 iPads, all through an automated process. Last school year, our team flew all across the country, working in schools to diagnose and fix problems with the curriculum. This year, no one had to do that.

Solving curriculum distribution has opened many doors for us. From rapid iteration on the curriculum, to giving students more choice in and control over what they learn, to new projects still on the horizon, over-the-air deployment has given us a ton of amazing new projects to build over the next year and beyond — keep an eye out for future blog posts on some of them!