Apps I Have Loved
District IT leaders share their favorite mobile apps and the ones they rely on.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Ask district IT leaders which mobile apps they rely on and they’ll tell you--and tell you, and tell you. According to a March estimate from Distimo, there were 653,614 apps in the iPhone, Android, iPad, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile stores alone. So, is it any wonder that these busy people have found a few that come in handy on the job? And, no, we’re not talking about Angry Birds HD or the ABC Player. These are programs they use over and over again to save time, money, and motion on the job.
On the Road Again
Carl Fong is a technology professional with one of the largest school districts in California. Still, the executive director of IT at the Orange County Department of Education points out that “we like to be customer-service focused.” To him that means total accessibility to all his “customers” all the time--even when he’s on the road, which is a lot of the time.
To ensure he’s always connected, Fong juggles two devices, a district-sponsored BlackBerry Storm and a personal iPhone 4 that’s increasingly becoming a work phone too. When he’s at a school campus, for example, and somebody’s having wireless trouble, he’ll pull his iPhone out and run an app that allows him to check the WiFi network, find out who exactly is logged in, and try to resolve the problem quickly. His preference: iNet Pro, which provides information about networks. Then, if the complaint involves performance of the wireless network, he can pull up SpeedTest to see how fast the recalcitrant technology is moving.
Because Fong travels around his Southern California district and to Sacramento for sessions of the Technology and Telecommunications Steering Committee of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, he likes the apps that help him be efficient and get business done while on the road. Those include:
- AroundMe, which lets him find everything from hotels and restaurants to parking places and hotels near his current location
- Atomic Web, what Fong says is one of the best web browsers around for a smartphone
- Bump, which allows him to “bump” others’ smartphones to exchange information with them, thereby eliminating the need for old-school business cards
- Cardstar, which is similar to Bump, but for airline and hotel reward cards
- Engadget Mobile, to help this self-professed geek stay up to date on technology and gadget news
- Genius Scan, a tool for scanning images and distributing them as PDFs
- Google Mobile, with a voice feature that gives him the ability to search for information--hands-free
- MapQuest, which has voice navigation that Fong considers “pretty good”
- Mobile Skype, to make IP calls on an iPhone
- Southwest.com Mobile, for checking flight times and checking in for flights on his preferred airline
- Tango Video Calls, for holding videoconferences with people who have devices other than the iPhone over 3G or WiFi
- Textfree with Voice (formerly i2i), which allows him to text a single message to a group of people
Across the Board
Scott Christensen, director of technology for the Burlington Area School District (WI), has two favorites for his iPhone 4 and iPad. The first is the mail client and calendar-syncing app for Google’s Gmail, which his district recently adopted. "I use it a ton," he says. "It is really nice to get all of my e-mail anywhere I am. I’m not sure how I ever survived [without it]!”
And he likes being able to coordinate his calendar using his MacBook, iPad, and phone. "I am terrible at writing meetings down,” Christensen confesses, "but since I began using this program, I can keep track of things anywhere--and they all sync together. It has made me more organized and better prepared for my day."
He has also come to rely on Evernote, an app that helps him keep track of all of his ideas and notes across platforms. "I really like that I can use it on all of my devices," Christensen says. "It gives me the ability to collect and share info with others as well as make notes and lists from wherever I am."
Beyond Love: The App That Saved My School
James Buckey is the sole IT expert at Rolling Hills Local School District in Cambridge, OH, which means his help is often needed in more than one place at a time. He has used Wyse PocketCloud on his Motorola Xoom since it became available on Android phones in 2010. PocketCloud allows users to securely access the contents of their PCs from mobile phones running either Android or iOS.
Last winter, when a heavy snowstorm hit Buckey’s district, he had to fly into action--even though the storm kept him stuck at home. Buckey received alerts from a central server that runs the HVAC system for his district’s buildings, warning him of the imminent approach of freezing temperatures inside two structures, an elementary school and an administration building. For some reason, the units controlling the buildings’ boilers wouldn’t self-ignite. Since the buildings are heated by hot water supplied by those boilers, supply lines run throughout the facility into every room. If those pipes were to freeze, crack, and thaw, the district would face a major mop-up job, akin to a serious flood.
"Using PocketCloud, I was able to connect to this server to manage the firing status of the two buildings’ boiler units," Buckey says. "I was able to cycle a few sensors and reset the controllers so that the boilers would fire and heat the buildings before the pipes began to freeze"--all from the comfort of his own home.
No Laptop, No Problem
Jim Culbert, information security manager for Duval County Public Schools (FL), says he loves the combined calendar and e-mail functions of his iPhone. "I can have my work, college, and personal e-mail and calendar combined--it just saves time," he says.
On the Agenda
Don Manderson, director of instructional technology and professional development at the Escambia County School District (FL), has grown to depend on the iAnnotate PDF reader to make it easier to work with web-posted documents (school board agendas, for instance) on his iPad. He’s not the only one, either: Because all board members and most staff members in his district work on iPads, they’ve also come to rely on this app. A big plus, Manderson says, is that it preserves links to other PDFs embedded in the document, which typically aren’t "handled gracefully on an iPad."
A Texas Kind of Thing
Vickie McCarthy, CTO of Clear Creek Independent School District (TX), has grown fond of Eduphoria’s SchoolObjects:pdasmobile, a classroom walkthrough tool that runs on BlackBerry, Android, and Apple iOS devices. "It is a must-have," she says. Only one problem: It may be a must-have for McCarthy, but it’s available only in Texas. SchoolObjects provides a web-based means of creating, submitting, and monitoring professional development and appraisal progress, and its output mirrors official Texas state reports.
Drop Me a Line
Gary Brantley, chief information systems officer at Lorain City Schools (OH), says he needs half a dozen apps:
AIM, the AOL Instant Messenger and location-aware classic, "allows me to stay connected to my staff and co-workers," Brantley says. "We live on this app."
- WebEx and GoToMeeting are indispensable to Brantley. "I’ve had on-the-go meetings in the strangest places with these apps," he says.
iPhone Maps helps Brantley figure out where he is and then share his location with others.
- He uses LogMeIn Ignition to give himself remote access to computers all over the district.
Dropbox, the cloud-based repository for files, has been "a lifesaver in situations when I needed certain documents." Brantley recalls flying to Vancouver, British Columbia, to make a presentation to 700-plus educators. "The presentation files somehow were corrupted. I don’t know how, but they were,” he says. “I remembered I had put a copy in Dropbox. All I needed was an internet connection. I was able to continue on with my presentation without a hitch. So Dropbox really saved me that time."
Two for the Phone
Matt Federoff, CIO of Vail Unified School District (AZ), doesn’t know how he managed so long without two vital apps he now runs on his iPhone. The first is Mocha VNC, which "helps me get to all my critical servers to monitor and control them," he says. Federoff says he likes the app’s interface, finds the level of control "amazing," and gauges its performance--even over 3G--as "really good." The second is WifiTrak, which displays wireless network name, encryption, channel, and received signal level, all "invaluable for evaluating wireless coverage at a site." (WifiTrak has since been removed from Apple’s App Store.)
A Splash(top) in a Pinch
Matthew G. Castanera-Bartoszek, director of technology at Beauvoir, The National Cathedral Elementary School in Washington, DC, uses the Kindle app, as well as Dropbox, on both his iPad and iPhone. Other favorites include:
- Air Sharing Pro, "an oldie but goodie" that acts as a wireless hard drive for his iPhone
- The multi-dimensional blogging host app Tumblr
- RockMelt, which delivers social networking onto mobile devices
- Splashtop, "used in a pinch to get to my desk PC when I am out helping someone in their office and need quick access"
Of course, Castanera-Bartoszek reminds us, a smartphone shouldn’t be only about the job. His all-time favorite app (at least until the next new winner surfaces) is Nike+GPS, "to keep my body in shape and my mind sharp for my work."