Apple targets textbooks, education

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Apple's announcements further iPad revolution in education

[Editors’ Note: Fraser Speirs is a Mac and iOS developer as well as a teacher at the Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland, where he led a program in which every student has been given an iPad.]

The iPad has begun a quiet revolution in education. All over the world, schools are putting ambitious plans in place to adopt Apple’s tablet at large scale.

When parents, teachers and administrators are surveyed, converting textbooks into electronic publications is often one of the main purposes that respondents imagine an iPad in school could be used for. It’s usually the parents and school administrators who are most enthusiastic about this—students and teachers often have more imagination!

The state of ebooks in schools

Before Thursday’s announcements, the situation for using ebooks in schools was dire. Neither of the Big Two ebook systems—iBooks and Kindle—had any mechanism for a school to build an “ebook library.” Unfortunately, we still don’t.

With iOS apps, schools can use the App Store Volume Purchase Program to bulk-buy coupon codes to allow students to download apps. Those apps are downloaded into individual students’ accounts and cannot be transferred elsewhere. The same is true of electronic books.

The ownership model for ebooks is out of step with the way schools buy and use most books. Unfortunately, Apple’s announcement didn’t change that much. I had hoped that on Thursday we would see a mechanism for checking books out and back into some kind of “school library” through iBooks. Instead we got a modest price cut on textbooks alone.

Publishers have gained unprecedented control over a book’s lifecycle—the first purchaser owns it and can’t sell it, lend it or even give it away—and until yesterday they had not responded with lower prices. I’m not arguing against lower prices; the $200 textbook has been a blight on the American education system.

It’s worth noting, though, that the iBooks ownership model makes it possible that the education system as a whole will end up spending more on textbooks. Selling a $75 textbook for $15 is break-even for the school if their paper textbooks only lasted five years. Many schools have books older than that.

Schools also use books other than textbooks—and Thursday’s announcement did nothing to address school libraries. A textbook is typically loaned out by a school for a period on the order of one year. A class novel is loaned out for a term. A reference book is loaned for a week. In early years, a reading book may be loaned out for a day or two. If a five-year-old’s reading book cost even 99 cents, that’s still too expensive if that book will be locked to individual iTunes accounts.

I had been hoping that Apple would introduce a loaning system for institutional purchases of books, but we’re still waiting on that. What Apple did this week was persuade three publishers to “make it up in volume” and open the way for high school textbooks to be treated as a consumable item. What about class novels? Will we see Hemingway and Orwell on sale for 99 cents so that every pupil can take it away when the class is done?

Self-publishing of ebooks

In response to the desirability of electronic texts in schools and the high cost of commercial texts, teachers have started to create their own. This is happening on an ad-hoc basis right now in schools equipped with iPads.

It’s ad-hoc because the tools have not been easy to use. Since Apple updated it to support ePub export, Pages has been the standard tool for creating an ebook on the Mac. It does a reasonable job, but it’s limited and the process of testing your book requires a tedious process of exporting the book, transferring it to an iOS device and opening it in iBooks.

iBooks Author really solves this problem. It’s an incredibly powerful application that improves the experience of putting together an ebook but dramatically smooths the workflow. iBooks Author is rather like an Xcode for books: You build the book on the Mac, “compile” it into an ebook, and transfer it to the device for testing. It’s exactly how iOS app developers work.

iBooks Author is a product of Apple’s iWork team and it’s no surprise that it looks and behaves in a very similar way to Pages. It’s almost like Pages and Keynote got together and produced a child. Anyone familiar with either app will pick up iBooks Author without any problem.

iBooks Author can do for books what Keynote did for presentations: an accessible way to create very high-quality results with little effort.

One of my colleagues is teaching his class about Russia right now. There aren’t a lot of commercial teaching materials that talk about Russia in a way that’s linked to the Scottish curriculum. He’s making the materials himself and delivering them as ebooks on our school iPads.

iTunes U

Of the three things announced Thursday, I believe iTunes U is the most important. Until yesterday, iTunes U was merely another category in the iTunes store where you could download movies, audio files and the occasional PDF.

If you’ve ever tried to “take” a course from iTunes U, you may have found it a bit frustrating. It was never really a full course, just some lecture materials and a reading list. Where are the books? Where are the exercises? It was difficult for course authors to communicate the intended progression of learning.

Many schools and colleges use a type of software known as a Virtual Learning Environment or a Learning Management System (LMS). It’s software, usually web-based, which provides access to materials, course outlines and structure. Often, you can also take tests and submit work through a LMS. Sometimes the LMS itself will score the test and provide feedback while the teacher has a console to monitor progress through the tests.

The iTunes U app handles a lot of this. It’s half an LMS—the good half. It handles the distribution of information and course content but it makes no attempt to verify the learner’s progress. That’s rightly a teacher’s job, not a machine’s job. Education is not a production line and our children should not be reduced to Stakhanovite drones working through machine-driven education.

Historically, it has been difficult to get access to publishing through iTunes U. The system was set up to allow a small number of universities and other large institutions to publish content to the store. One of the biggest procedural changes to the system is that individual K-12 schools will now be able to publish courses to iTunes U. In a world where teachers have iBooks Author on their Macs and iPads in their classrooms, easy access to a publishing platform like iTunes U is the missing third leg of the stool.

With iTunes U, Apple has solved the problem of communicating the learning journey. It’s no longer “read this PDF, then watch these videos.” Courses can now contain audio, video, documents, links to iOS apps and iBooks. There’s deep integration between iBooks and iTunes U through which notes and highlights from a book can be reviewed in the iTunes U app. This may be an effective way for smaller schools to provide an LMS without having to subscribe to a commercial service like Blackboard or handle the installation of an open source LMS like Moodle.

The revolution already happened

Apple already revolutionized education when it invented the iPad. While iBooks textbooks are a bridge from the past to the future—and we do need a way to get to the future—they are not that future. If Henry Ford had been an educational publisher, his customers would have asked for electronic textbooks instead of faster horses.

I understand why Apple is pushing on this: the textbook is culturally and politically embedded in the American education system. It’s also an obvious and easily understood way to sell the benefits of the iPad to the people who control educational spending. Such people are often not ready to hear a pitch about teachers and pupils creating their own materials, using the Internet for learning, and communicating with peers and experts around the world.

As William Gibson put it, the future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

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