Apple targets textbooks, education

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Apple's textbook plan feels like a blast from the past

I had to check that my computer wasn’t an old black-and-white television set showing blocky white text Thursday morning and that I wasn’t clacking away on a 6502 computer over a 110-baud modem when I heard about Apple’s announcements relating to iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and its new multimedia textbooks. That’s because I’ve heard it all before.

When I was a snot-nosed kid in 1981 with my fancy Ohio Scientific C1P, educational software vendors were already hawking textbook complements for the Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80. Today, the object is to replace textbooks altogether while enhancing them beyond what paper can manage. As a grizzled and cynical technology veteran, I ask: What’s been learned in 30 years? Apparently, that you can make the same arguments and believe that they’ve never been made before.

From the dawn of the concept of multimedia, firms that cater to the education market have been pushing the notion that adding animation, audio, and video (as each form of media became more readily embeddable) would engage students further, and improve achievement. Printed books are boring. They just sit there! That’s one of their advantages, too.

At Apple’s press event on Thursday, senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller went down the same tired path. “One thing we hear louder than anything else is student engagement, inspiring kids to want to discover and learn,” he said. Kids are bored. The iPad is fun and engaging, Schiller explained. This is the same contention made for decades, and I challenge readers to find any longitudinal studies tracking students who have used or are using packaged multimedia-enhanced instruction showed measured and consistent improvement over control groups.

A 2003 meta-study by SRI International—”Effects of Using Instructional Technology in Elementary and Secondary Schools,” funded by the National Science Foundation—looked at dozens of studies from the 1970s through the 1990s. The conclusion:

“It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.”

Apple’s Phil Schiller outlines the company’s education plans at Thursday’s press event.

The areas in which measurable improvement was found were mostly in drills related to math and science and better reading scores. The one bright spot was in interactive science simulations, in which phenomena can be modeled and examined and variables twiddled to see real-world interactions and theoretical ones.

More recently, a New York Times article examined sustained spending and a committed approach to technology integration in an Arizona school district over several years that produced test scores that stagnated in comparison to improvements in the rest of the state. Reporter Matt Richtel wrote:

“Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills—like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools—at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.”

What Apple demonstrates with a textbook-optimized version of iBooks is nothing special in this context; only the iPad makes it a new proposition. Making interactive multimedia available as part of education, whether in the context of a lesson or a course of study isn’t new. The power, portability, touch interaction, and immersion of the iPad relative to what it can perform is different. But that has more to do with how frequently and readily a student pulls out a book to study (digital or otherwise): a laptop isn’t inherently more tedious to use when that’s the format in which a textbook or instructional program is made available.

Apple seems to think that making the tool available solves the problem of pedagogy. Textbook makers and perhaps entrepreneurs have been just waiting for the moment in which they could take all this media and stick it together. It’s as if Apple has forgotten interactive CD-ROMs, and isn’t aware of the current generation of textbooks as Web apps, easily available from any desktop or laptop computer in a school.

For instance, Nature magazine’s publishing arm is releasing Principles of Biology, a 200-module Web-based college textbook that incorporates text, figures, video, and simulation—and works on all desktop operating systems and mobile platforms in contrast to Apple’s current locked-to-the-iPad approach. Nature has committed to constant updates (it’s a Web app, remember? no new downloads), and it’s $49 per student for a lifetime subscription. Nature isn’t making such a big deal out of the interactive parts, either; that’s part of the bigger picture and bigger package. It’s a multi-course set of curriculum enhancement for university-level teaching.

Apple’s 1.0 approach on digital textbooks seems so much less ambitious. In the K-12 world, it requires schools to supply kids with iPads; in college, ostensibly students would need to buy one. Bulk educational sales at Apple are, as of today at least, still locked into the mode of making a single purchase and then transferring licenses to individual iTunes Store accounts. That might work for college students, but can’t fly in the K-12 world, where school districts wouldn’t be allowed to give digital textbooks permanently to students.

The approach on release also doesn’t compete well on price and flexibility. Apple touted a $14.99 price tag on high-school textbooks, but given that the textbooks would move with students’ iTunes Store accounts, each time a new class needs the textbook, the purchase has to occur again. A printed textbook might last two or more years and be used by several students, which obviates some of its high cost. For college students, a $15 textbook locked to their account makes vastly more sense, but $200 to $500 college print textbooks marked down to $15 weren’t being discussed on Thursday.

I’m not knocking the iPad. It’s an amazing device, and I expect its educational benefits will emerge from independent software developers who produce specific apps that fill and advance needs, such as the science simulators discussed earlier, many examples of which you can buy for the iPad. Schools will gradually adopt the iPad and Apple will provide decent management tools for IT folk and licensing approaches for school-owned hardware. At this point, iBooks 2 and digital textbooks feel like I’m watching a M.A.S.H. episode for the 15th time. I’m waiting for Apple to produce some entirely new programming before I accept that the future has arrived.

[Glenn Fleishman is a senior contributor to Macworld.]

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