Apple and Textbooks, Part 2: Is There a Class In This Text?

When Apple announced both the release of their iBooks 2 and upgrades to iTunes University, I was curious to see what kind of integration they had between the two. If you do a web search on the subject, you will find plenty of articles that tell you that iBooks textbooks “fully integrate with” iTunes U—but without providing any details. What does that mean?

From what I can tell, it means that you can put a deep link from iTunes U to a specific page in an iBook. That’s what “fully integrates” means. What it apparently doesn’t mean is the ability to insert iTunes U content directly into the book via an iFrame or some other means. Technically, speaking, it would have been easy for them to do this. The iBook format is essentially EPUB. It’s HTML, CSS, and Javascript. A collection of web pages. They even have explicit support for widgets. It wouldn’t have been hard at all for them to create an iTunes U widget. But they didn’t go there. I think that omission, while not a huge deal in and of itself, is deeply revealing about the limits of Apple’s vision about textbooks and education.

An analog textbook is, by its very nature, separated from the rest of the activities of a class. It is constrained to whatever the publisher put into it, regardless of what teachers and students want or need to do with it. It is literally bound. But that’s an artificial boundary, and it’s not a good one. Learning content wants to be as close to learning activity as possible. Consider, for example, the now famous Stanford course in artificial intelligence by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. In their course, the video content actually morphs into a quiz:

Of course, iBook textbooks have quizzes. But they are the quizzes that were placed by the authors, not the teachers. In Apple’s vision, the textbook remains an artifact that is what it is, regardless of how well or poorly it lines up with what the actual class is doing. Teachers take what they are given in the iBook, ignore the parts that they don’t like, and do their other activities—regardless of how closely related those activities are to the learning content in the book—elsewhere. Just like with an analog textbook. As Dan Meyer wrote:

The textbook is now digital but students still encounter it as they always have: wisdom to be received, perhaps highlighted, annotated, and memorized, but not created, constructed, or made sense of. Teachers still interact with students as they always have. The platform doesn’t offer them any new insights into the ways their students think about mathematics. As far as I can tell, the iBook doesn’t establish any new link between the student and teacher, or strengthen any old ones.

What I’m saying, basically, is that I’d have to modify, adapt, and extend the McGraw-Hill iBook in all the same ways that I modified, adapted, and extended the McGraw-Hill print textbook. We’d pull out the iBook just as infrequently as its printed sibling.

But why? There is no binding here except the one that Apple chooses to make. Why should the educational experience limited to what the publisher thought to include? The linear organization of educational content is a useful aspect of the analog book that is worth keeping. But the notion that what is published is what makes up the textbook represents a failure of imagination. (There’s a related flaw in iTunes U, by the way. Resources are relatively atomic, organized only by a menu, and you often have to launch out into a separate environment to interact with those resources. Their notion of context is paper-thin.)

It just doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not like Apple didn’t have models for alternatives. As I discussed in an earlier post, the new product category of innovative e-textbooks start with a baseline assumption that instructors should be able to edit the content. They can add, remove, re-order, and in some cases even change the provided text itself. For that matter, a lot of OER content is available on wikis. iBooks textbooks offer no editing capabilities for the users. So already, the product cannot be customized to the needs of the particular class. Far from being personalized, it is needlessly generic. Furthermore, the interactivity that is in the iBook is similarly bound, isolated from the rest of the class experience. Sure, you can take a quiz, but can your do anything with that quiz? Does it have any relation to the rest of what you do in class? No. OK, you can take notes, but can you share your notes? Again, no. There is content that is worthy of discussion, but can you actually have an online discussion that’s directly tied in to the text? No, both because there are no class discussions and because if there were their placement wouldn’t be up to the teacher. Does it let students insert their own content and create a collective narrative that helps to make sense of the content? Once again, nope. The iBook is an artifact, bound, inert, and completely separate from the rest of the class experience. And yet, these books are software. They are web pages. Epic failure of imagination.

This isn’t likely to change much as long as Apple is constraining iBooks to a proprietary format that can only be rendered in their reader because that reader limits what you can do with the pages, technologically speaking. This decision, in turn, is tied to their apparent view that a book is mostly a static thing that is good for solitary interaction. In a class, reading is a fundamentally social activity. You are engaging with the content together. The “book” should be shaped (dare I say constructed?) by the collective needs, goals, and contributions of the class. By extension, an educational eBook reader should be a collaborative learning environment. But Apple hasn’t designed iBooks as a learning environment, and they have prevented you from taking your iBooks Author output to one that is.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Apple really wants to be in the business of providing a learning environment. If they did want that, they could have done it a long time ago. Their current blockbuster success with mobile really goes in the opposite direction. The whole idea of a mobile app is that if I can narrow the context of your world to a small enough slice, I can do something really cool for you. That works for, say, learning angular momentum (c.f. Angry Birds). But if you want to go beyond those atomic concepts and really get students to make broader connections, you need a wide-ranging, flexible, and social environment. That’s not Apple’s gig.

The irony is that iBooks Author is a tool with real educational value. It’s just that the value isn’t in creating the digital re-imagination of the textbook. Rather, it is in making it easy to author a (relatively) new genre of multimedia publications. As both D’Arcy Norman and Joe Ugoretz point out, it would be a wonderful tool for students to use to create new kinds of narrative. I would love to see it replace Microsoft Word as the tool of choice for term papers, for example. They have built a beautiful authoring tool that can create great educational content. They should free that content so that it can be used in learning richer learning environments that allow the creation of broader learning contexts. I also think that, insofar as Apple is successful in convincing people that academic content really should be digital and students really should be working on tablets, they will be doing everybody a favor in the long run. With ubiquitous, low-priced, browser-enabled touch tablets at schools, we will see the development of a whole range of highly innovative and effective educational technology products blossom.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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3 Responses to Apple and Textbooks, Part 2: Is There a Class In This Text?

  1. Michael, I agree with everything you say here and agree with your assessment as to the weaknesses in Apple’s current offering. But the problem is that no one will beat them to the *right* solution because everyone is trying to solve the problems in the next six months and not attacking the problems that are five years out. As long as the marketplace continues to doggedly work on things that will be soon obsolete, Apple will look five years out and will slowly close up the cracks and weaknesses over the next few years – and *then* the game will be over.

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