Apple Volume Purchasing | Feature

Navigating Apple's Discount App Program for Educators

Mitchell Salerno is always on the lookout for cutting edge technology. If a device can foster learning, the assistant superintendent at The Master's Academy (TMA), Oviedo, FL, wants it in students' hands.  

When Apple came out with its now ubiquitous iPad, Salerno quickly saw the potential. Thanks to a nimble administrative team, TMA's high school students soon became the first in the Sunshine state to each receive an iPad.

 To support students with the software they need for their iPads, TMA purchases its apps through Apple's Volume Purchase Program. The almost one-year-old program essentially provides a 50 percent discount for educators who buy more than 20 apps at a time.

With those apps generally running about $0.99 each, the savings at private TMA are relatively modest. However, at cash-strapped public schools with larger student populations, dollars saved can add up.

At the Chula Vista Elementary School District in Southern California, Antwon Lincoln supports multiple school-owned iPads in various lab and classroom settings. In his role as instructional technology and media service coordinator, he understands the fine print on every user agreement. "Apple's program can be a challenging experience if you're not willing to go along for the ride," he mused. "The challenge is to stay legal. There are certain requirements, and school sites must establish clear guidance, because Apple does not. You don't want to open the door to lawsuits over 99 cents."

Low-Hanging Fruit
When Salerno logs in to the volume purchasing site, he uses previously purchased "credits" to buy the apps he needs. It's a convenient way to make several transactions without the hassle of writing multiple purchase orders (POs). These credits are purchased from Apple in the form of physical gift cards in denominations of $100 or more and can only be used for volume purchases.

At a glance, Salerno knows how much he has left on the account, and he can get the numbers to school bean counters on a moment's notice. "So far we have bought every app through this program," he enthused.

Not all app makers are willing to reside on Apple's tree of knowledge, instead choosing to eschew the Volume Purchase Program in an effort to woo full-price customers. Lincoln acknowledged that the long-term presence of Apple's program may ultimately distort the market in the form of higher prices. "Most education app developers will participate in the program," he said. "However, app developers may be tempted to increase the price of their app to ease the effect of Apple's 50 percent discount. It is difficult to be an innovative small app developer when your app is free or 50 cents per download."

Going beyond the confines of Apple's program can bear fruit, and Lincoln created a Web site called Apps In Education to help educators find the diamonds in the rough. "Good apps can be found," he said, "but great apps must be discovered and shared. In most cases, the Apple Purchasing Program can help in this effort, but not all the time."

Apps that make that cut at TMA are usually downloaded to school-owned machines one at a time. To avoid complications, the school does not favor a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) philosophy for students. "We have ways of installing apps wirelessly, but we usually just bring iPads in and work on them individually because it's easier," Salerno said.

Eye on User IDs
Apple currently does not have a user ID-based system in place to correctly identify the number of devices on which a certain app is installed. "Schools could purchase one license and potentially install on 10 or more iOS devices connected by one ID," said Lincoln, who will lead a session on the program at the CUE conference in Palm Springs on March 15. "Some schools believe that, 'As long as it's installed and students can use the app, we're okay.' It's a gray area in education. Schools should seek the help of IT personnel or site technology leadership and develop a process to abide by license agreements to ensure devices are legal."

Using the Apple volume discount, Lincoln purchases a license code for each device he will need to load the app on. Once he has license codes in hand, he assigns a single code to one user ID and loads every iPad with the app using that ID. The other license codes are documented internally as proof that the school has paid for multiple apps but remain otherwise unused.

"This option limits set up time by reducing the need to attach licenses to multiple user accounts," Lincoln said. "However, managing this, and staying legal, is a challenge if one has more devices than licenses."

The only alternative, he said, is to assign a fresh user-ID to every iOS device. Then, one app license is assigned to each user-ID (or device), which guarantees that schools only install apps they have already paid for. "This option is time-consuming and labor-[intensive], but it ensures that schools are following the license agreement," Lincoln said. "Which option is best? It all depends on support and willingness to change as Apple clarifies the program."

Lincoln also cautions that site technology leaders must have a system in place to maintain IDs. "If you are going to provide an iOS device with an app, you must have a generic account associated with that school, or that device--not to the user," he said. "Especially for users who have a personal account. Always look at implications beyond the classroom. If taxpayers find out that teachers are leaving with software paid with tax dollars, and schools do not have a process to secure that app for future use, it could be a big issue."

Fortunately, Lincoln has managed to avoid such issues, and he said he plans to continue using the volume purchase program whenever it makes sense. His sole gripe: "Apple should allow users to 'de-authorize' apps that are attached to an ID. This would ultimately provide a better way to manage apps, and allow schools to hold on to their app investment for future generations to use."

About the Author

Greg Thompson is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, CO.