iwork_ipad_original Four people this week have asked me, “How should I transfer student work from an iPad?” The question is simple, but one which many schools are still trying to find a solution to.

We’re so used to students simply saving work in one centralised location, that the idea that something that is usually so intuitive is complex on an iPad comes as something as a surprise. Without such a system, however, we risk having documents littered across multiple devices, apps, and online services with little organisation.

iPads are designed as 1:1 devices, but in education we usually use IT hardware as a pooled resource — several students to one device. It’s true there are a number of schools distributing iPads to every student, but the majority are simply not able to do this for financial reasons. So, we need a scaleable and simple solution.

We want the following things for our students:

  1. We need each student’s work to be stored in a separate location personal to them — one student should never have access to another’s documents or photos
  2. Saving work should be simple and intuitive — no complex procedures allowed
  3. The student should be prevented from saving work in an inappropriate location — students should fully understand where their work is being saved

The Problem

iPad apps are restricted from affecting or being affect by other apps by something called sandboxing. This means that each app runs completely separately from any other process on the device unless it is specifically requested by the app. For example, a music app could only access the music stored on your device, it likely wouldn’t be able to access your photos or contacts list. There are many benefits to sandboxing:

  • Apps are unable to maliciously affect other apps or the operating system
  • Your personal data is less likely to become compromised
  • Unnecessary background processes don’t slow down your iPad

But sandboxing also causes a problem. Because iPad apps are prevented from passing information between each other, transferring work anywhere outside of the application it was created in becomes difficult. Add to this the fact that there is no user accessible file browser and managing files becomes close to impossible.

Also, because there is no central log in point on the iPad, there is no way to differentiate one user from another. This results in a student having to manually log in and out of multiple applications to secure their data.

Options for Transferring Work

So, how do we work around this? Well, there are a few solutions, but I’ll give you my conclusion right now to save disappointing you at the end of the article. There is no perfect remedy for storing student work safely, securely, and in a way that meets, what many consider to be a level acceptable by, most Data Protection policies. iPad by it’s nature is a single user device. User “authentication”, if you will, is per device, not per user. Another way of putting this is that it’s the person who holds the device who controls the data. The real world result of this is that it is possible to have multiple user accounts for multiple applications stored on the device at one time. A data protection nightmare waiting to happen.


Allowing students to email work from their iPad to their personal email account is a simple but unscalable and unsafe solution to transferring work from the iPad. There a are multiple ways to implement such a system, but the most common one I see is to have a generic email account on each iPad from which the student can send their work. The benefit of this solution — and possibly the only benefit — is that almost every iPad application capable of allowing user generated data allows sharing via email. The downsides, however, are numerous:

  • Only small files can be sent
  • Allowing students open access to an anonymous email account is, for want of a better phrase, “asking for trouble.”
  • Emailing a document is only half the solution. The student then has to access the document on another device — most likely a PC — and save the work to a suitable location
  • Work saved in a generic email account is still accessible from the app within which it was created, and the iPad’s Sent Items folder allowing access to other students.

Third-Party Cloud Storage Apps — e.g. Google Drive, Dropbox, Skydrive, Box.net, Sugar Sync

dropbox_logoCloud storage apps allow the user to login to a personal account and upload files to a cloud based storage system. This type of system works well for 1:1 devices using a centrally managed system such as Google Apps for Education, but for pooled devices we still have the issue of account security. This solution also assumes that you are already using a cloud storage solution and that the service you are using meets your organisation’s Data Protection Policy. Centrally managed accounts are essential for this type of system.


Apple’s iCloud is a fairly comprehensive way to sync your documents and settings between an iPad and another device. This only works, however, if the device is your personal iPad. Synchronising using iCloud isn’t effective for multiple users on the same device. As with the previous method, there is also no way to centrally manage a number of accounts which makes this solution unscalable.

Third-Party Apps Which Allows File Transfers — e.g. Showbie

There are a number of iPad apps which allow transfer of files between student iPads and a teacher. Showbie is one application which works well for assignment based tasks, but isn’t designed for long term storage of work or bulk uploading a significant number of files. Where personal student details, photos, or work is stored outside of your organisation you should always ensure you are meeting your Data Protection responsibilities. See below for more on this.


dropdavWebdav (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) is an extension of HTTP (the protocol that allows you to view webpages over the World Wide Web) which allows you to manage and transfer files on remote servers. To put it simply, Webdav allows your iPad to transfer documents to a file server of your choosing.

Webdav is actually quite an elegant solution — it allows authentication against Active Directory, allows you to transfer files directly to shared Windows folders, and is an industry standard protocol supported by many app developers. The main problem using Webdav to transfer files from iPad, however, is with the iPad not Webdav.

As I mentioned previously, because iPad is designed as a 1:1 device there is no way to prompt a user to logout of their account when you have finished with a device. Also, because each iPad app is a separate entity the user must log set up and log in to their Webdav server on each iPad app individually.

Data Protection Policy — Safe Harbouring

Above all you should make sure that where ever you store your data it is secure and meets your organisations Data Protection policy. If your school does not have a policy in place make sure to implement one. When saving data, or asking your users to save data, some questions your should always ask yourself are:

  • Where is this information being stored? Is it on the device in front of you, on a server within your organisation, or is it on a server outside of your organisation?
  • If the server is outside of your organisation ask where is this data being stored.
  • If it’s outside of the EU does the storage provider comply with the EU-US Safe Harbour Principals?
  • Is the local device secure? Could someone else easily access the data? Is the device encrypted
  • Is the data backed up? How long is the data retention period?
  • Is there a situation in which failure to produce this data would have consequences for me, my department, or the school? For example, an Ofsted inspection, a financial audit, or as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.


As I said at the beginning, there is no perfect solution to transferring work from a muti-user iPad. None of those listed above meet all of the criteria that we need to safely, reliably, and intuitively allow students to make sure their documents are secure. We therefore have to change the way we look at using iPads as a shared resource.

The primary mistake schools make is expecting to use iPads as they would a laptop. iPads are single user devices, they are not designed to be used in trolleys accessed by multiple users. We have to accept, however, that there are benefits to teaching and learning that iPads bring and we must best accomodate those, but this does not change the reality of the devices.

iPads are best used as kinaesthetic learning tools, use them to make information more accessible, but do not use them to generate significant work unless the device is 1:1 with that student.

I’m continually looking for new and more efficient ways to manage file storage on iPads. If you have your own solution, or one that I haven’t listed, please let me know in the comments.


About Author

Profile photo of Karl Rivers

Karl is an award winning Director of IT for the Royal Grammar School Guildford, based near London, England. He has been working in education for more than ten years and founded ClassThink in 2013 to share technology best practice with other schools. In 2014 he won the NAACE Impact Award for support services in schools, and writes edtech articles for Education Executive Magazine.


  1. Karl, you mentioned “folder”, which is, I think like dropbox but hosted on site. Could you explain it or give link to where to find out more please

  2. Best Article in a “Nutshell” I have seen!! Authentication can happen on more than Active Directory if you have a diversified stock portfolio that includes more than Microsoft. It can be local to the Linux box, it could be PAM with an alternative LDAP directory (The Grand Father of Microsoft Active Directory .x.500)

  3. My current “solution” is that each ipad has its own separate gmail address.

    In Gmail I have set up a filter to delete all emails from the sending email address – this means no sent mail and no way for students to get hold of their classmates’ email addresses. (Apple’s inbuilt system automatically saves all email addresses you enter, which is a big no no for child protection so I can’t use that).

    I have also set each gmail account up to forward all emails *received* by that email address to a monitored account by our child protection officer. Unfortunately the last time I checked at least, you can’t automatically get gmail to forward every outgoing mail. But if students are using the iPads to bully someone else using a class ipad, then they’ll be caught!

    Finally, to avoid emails going astray, I’ve pre entered every teacher’s work email and each iPad’s email into Contacts and synced it with one centralised account.

    I’ve found that emails are the safest way to save work. Students and teachers aren’t very good at saving work in Dropbox. There’s always at least one who ends up saving their work to one device. The problem then is you get devices becoming increasingly cluttered over time and it’s a major hassle to clean them up.

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