Review: Otus Learning Environment for iPad

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Otus positions itself as a learning environment for teachers and students who use iPads in school. There are two separate apps, a teacher app and a student app. The teacher app allows you to set up classes, log achievements or behavioural issues, take registers, set assignments and coming soon will be the ability to write blogs and have teacher led slide shows.

Class set up is easy enough. As a teacher, setting up a class generates a class code which you can give to your students who can automatically enroll. The email address of each student is then displayed once they are enrolled in the class. One of the useful parts of the app is the ‘bookshelf’ area where you can upload resources for your students. It must be said, this is slightly limiting in that you can upload links from the web, your camera roll or the inbuilt freehand drawing tool. It would be slightly more tricky to upload a Keynote presentation say, unless you put it in cloud storage and could generate a link to it for your students to follow. To be fair, this may be due to limitations Apple puts on moving files around in iOS. Once you have uploaded a resource, it then will appear in your student’s Otus app for that particular class. I tested this with a web link and a drawing and it worked flawlessly.

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There are a few issues with the app currently however. I had a few problems with the assignment part of the app. I wanted to create some test quizzes, which I gather can self mark. Every time I tried to create a quiz it seemed to disappear. I eventually managed to create one which would show up in the assignment area and I could then send it to my class with ease. I did contact the app developer who responded very promptly to see if there was some sort of issue with the quiz module. As a teacher, I thought I’d entered the correct answer so the quiz could auto mark, but it didn’t seem to do this when I took the quiz as a student. I take the point that I may have been doing it wrong, but I followed the instructions and also did what I thought would make it work, but had no success.

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Otus also has Google Drive integration. It allows you to access your Drive files within the app, and pressing on them opens them up back in the Google Drive app. One of the issues with this in Otus is that files which are not Google Apps files give me the ‘file not supported’ message, this strangely includes PDFs, which seem to open fairly universally in every other app. I’m comparing this feature to Notability, or Explain Everything for example, which allows you to open your Google Drive files from within the app and will let you do things, like edit, draw or record sound into them. Otus was a bit hit and miss here. It opened up some of my Google Docs word processor files, but crashed when I opened others. Also, the Google Drive file browser in Otus displays the files in a seemingly random order. I’m sure this is not the case, but I couldn’t see why my files were displayed in this order. Also, I assumed that I would be able to link Google Drive files into the bookshelf, but again, I couldn’t see a way to do this.

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There is also a web browser in both the student and teacher apps where the teacher can see what websites the students have visited, but again, I couldn’t for the life of me get this feature working or see how to work it. The instructions for the web browser element of the app were also empty, but I’m sure it’s coming soon. The developers do mention clearly in the app description on the App Store, that because of the inclusion of the browser, Apple have rated this app 17+, which could cause an issue for students downloading it if their iPad is managed in any way. One of the good features here is the ability to edit your Google Docs files with the browser in split screen mode. The reality of this though is that some of my Google word processor files crashed the app upon opening them, and with the keyboard up there is very little screen estate to see much on the webpage.

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I’d consider myself fairly tech savvy when it comes to iPads and educational apps and I think the main issue at the heart of Otus is that it is not hugely user friendly in it’s current state. I know that as a teacher who works 9:30am-3pm and has 5 months a year holiday all the hours God sends I don’t necessarily have time to create things that disappear, spend ages reading instructions on how to do things and play about to try to get parts of an app working. One of the great things about the iPad and apps developed for them is that they are pick up and play. I know from my experience of running staff training to non IT geeks (being an IT geek myself), that an app where I can demonstrate why it will make a teacher’s life easier within 60 seconds is a keeper. Anything that takes much longer, staff will begin to lose interest.

Otus is a great idea in that it tries to bring most of what a teacher would want together in one app, but it doesn’t do anything that I couldn’t do more easily within the Google Drive app, iTunes U, or with the outstanding iDoceo app. I think it would be useful if you were a teacher with responsibility for only one class and could happily tinker with the app to your heart’s content, but I’m not sure I could see this being rolled out to a whole school where standardisation across departments or year groups becomes important, and staff IT skills/patience vary to huge degrees.

It looks to me that currently Otus is more of a beta app than a full classroom ready release. I can see it has bags of potential and it will certainly be one to watch closely. There are some really good features, like the ability to share resources with other Otus using teachers, easy class set up, and the split screen browser/Google Docs editor (which needs a bit of polishing still). What it needs though is a short and to the point tutorial when you open the app for the first time to explain what the app is and the main features, a slightly more friendly assignment option, and more obvious Google Drive integration. There are also small things like no portrait mode (useful when the iPad is in hand in the classroom), the Google Drive file browser being a bit random and the need for clearer in app instructions. However, part of the development team is a current teacher and it is great to see classroom practitioners being involved directly in app development, and I’m sure that after a couple of revisions it will be a good part of a teacher’s app collection.

Otus Teacher app is available on the App Store here, and the Otus Student app is available here. Both are free.

James Potter

My day job is Director of Technology at one of the UK's leading independent schools. I'm on a daily mission to use, and learn to use technology in the most creative, innovative and transformational ways. The iPad ticks all of these boxes. My geekery also extends to a passion for cricket, amateur astronomy, video gaming and bad guitar playing. You can contact me on Twitter with the link below.

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