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Of iBooks and textbooks. And Authoring. By Students.

So there’s been a lot of excited posts–positive and negative–in a lot of different places about Apple’s announcement last week that they were ready to “revolutionize” the world of textbooks.  Some of the best of those that I’ve seen are from Audrey Watters at Hack Education and Kathleen Fitzpatrick at ProfHacker (both of these are mainly critical). (And just as I’m writing this post, I see that Michael Feldstein at e-literate has weighed in with his usual sharp brilliance!) And there have been some other good ones, too.  I think a lot of the criticism has been warranted.  And a lot of the excitement has been justified.

But I think that even the best of these have missed some important points, and misunderstood some others, so I wanted to give my own take.

A couple of opening premises:  I have felt for quite a while now that the “textbook” as an entity (a genre, a medium, a format, whatever it is) is long past its expiration date.  The extremely expensive physical book, which all students are required to purchase, which digests the critical information on a given academic subject, is something that was ever only of very limited value, and whatever value that was is pretty much long gone. (And “digest” is really the right word there–what these books do is take subjects and chew them up and pre-process them, so that they can be metabolized without effort…and without flavor or pleasure, either.  A textbook is to learning what Ensure® is to fine dining.)  The monopoly aspect, the new editions every year without any real content, but mostly the deadening effect on the learning, made me stop using textbooks in all my classes years ago.  I use books, not textbooks (and sometimes not even books, but that’s a separate topic).  Of course this is easier to do when teaching English…but I don’t think it’s impossible in any subject.

So I’m no fan of textbooks, but I have known and do see that they’re not exactly an escapable dinosaur right now.  Teachers with little time to innovate resources, or teachers mandated by a centrally-determined curriculum, or teachers who have found textbooks they really do like and find engaging and useful are still going to need to have those textbooks be as good as they can be–and as affordable and usable as they can be.

It seemed right from the start that Apple had knocked out a couple of the big problems with textbooks.  A cap of $15 is a big savings.  The ability to include video, 3-d objects, interactive charts and graphs, in-line review quizzes and hyperlinks adds a lot of new ways to engage with content.  And of course the reduced schlep-factor is an advantage.

And an easy and convenient (like iTunes) distribution method (cutting out the gouging of many campus bookstores) could help, too.

Miller and Levine's Biology
Miller and Levine's Biology text

So I tried this for myself.  I updated my iBooks on my iPad. I installed iBooks Author and started messing around with creating a textbook.  I downloaded the free (and beautiful) sample of E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth.  And I spent the $15 on Miller and Levine’s Pearson textbook Biology.  They definitely are beautiful.  And they definitely have the advantages that an iPad can give.  The video is terrific and plays smoothly and is integrated well.  The interactive demonstrations and graphs helped me to understand the concepts.  The photography in brilliant color, swiping to change photos and pinching to zoom, and the rotating and manipulable 3-d objects are terrific.  I took some quizzes and checked my answers and found out why I was missing what I was missing.  That was all great.  But what was still disappointing to me was that these are still textbooks.  They still have that same bulleted, condensed, digested approach to the content.  I got to read about what Darwin thought, but I didn’t get to read Darwin.  I got to see examples of what the book said I should know, but not look at examples and determine for myself what they told me.

EO Wilson's Life on Earth
EO Wilson's Life on Earth

I have been having a problem with almost all the ebook initiatives for schools that I have been reading and hearing about.  I can’t really support them, because they almost all see text as being something that can be just seamlessly translated into an electronic version and then left there.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  A textbook on a screen that is just text, without all the advantages that a screen can give (media, links, and so on), just seemed like a big waste to me.  And now I’ve found that even a beautiful multimedia textbook on a screen, taking advantage of what a screen can do, if it’s still a textbook…it’s better, but it’s still not good enough.

Now, there are also the disadvantages that are described in the posts I linked above.  There isn’t a means for interaction among students.  There isn’t as much of a savings for school districts where they have always purchased one set of books per class, to be re-used each year.  iPads are expensive and breakable.  And so forth.  Those are real.  But they aren’t to me the real disadvantages.

However.  And this is a big however and the main point I wanted to make.  There’s something else going on with this announcement, with this offering.  And that something seems to be missed in almost every post or reference I’ve seen. In addition to iBooks and the publisher-created textbooks for sale, Apple is also offering, as a free download, iBooks Author.  And that’s where things get really interesting.  Nobody has really missed that this product lets teachers create their own textbooks. And then offer them to their students (or anyone else).  Like any Apple product, iBooks Author has some incredibly beautiful ease of use features.  Like any Apple product, if you want to go outside the bounds of what Apple has predicted you will want to do, it’s frustrating.  And like any first-generation product of any kind, there are some bugs and issues (particularly with previewing and exporting) which will be resolved in future updates, to be sure.

It’s a giant time vampire, too–in a good way, though.  It’s very easy to get involved in adding this, arranging that, moving things, aligning things, thinking about where a picture would help or video or a hyperlink would be good or a glossary entry is necessary.  But some of this is actually very good thinking work, making decisions consciously about how to arrange and present content.

And that, right there, is what might be the real value in this product.  Not in having teachers create textbooks which they will then push out to students who are required to use them.  Like iMovie, like GarageBand (and yes, with their frustrations and problems), iBooks has the potential to put the creation into the hands of students.  That’s where we can have some exciting results, some really gorgeous and useful products.  Even better than that, it’s where we can have some vital and powerful processes.  When students create content, when they actively and critically think about what should be in their “textbook,” when each student (or small group of students) can create their own “textbook” and share it easily and actually get an audience who will be critical and responsive…that has the potential to be actually revolutionary.  They get the experience of doing the chewing, the swallowing, and the savoring (and even the creating the recipe and the cooking, if I’m not pushing the metaphor too far).

I will certainly make a textbook (more than one).  But I will also use the tool to think through how students can create something (some things) that aren’t really textbooks at all (although for convenience we might call them that.  Or maybe call them “untextbooks”).  A tool that lets students interact with course content in a way that is creative, expressive, and distributable, is a tool that I can use, that I’m excited about using, and that can really benefit students.

I’ve seen (everywhere!) the strong criticism that these textbooks, whoever creates them, are really only usable on iPads.  That’s true (although I’m not sure how permanently true that is.  I remember when music bought from iTunes could only be played on an iPod, and that’s not true anymore).  Even if it’s only temporarily true, it’s a valid criticism.

I’ve also seen (also everywhere, and even more angrily) the stronger criticism that Apple’s EULA on iBooks Author is too too restrictive.  That you can only sell the content you create through the iBooks store.  Only.  That’s true, too…but I care a whole lot less about that one.  Because Apple has also included, very explicitly, the condition that if you make your content free of charge, you can distribute it any way you want.  No limitations.  We need a bigger universe of free content, and this model could (will, I think) help to promote that.  If you want to sell, sell through Apple.  But better yet…don’t sell.  Give it away.  Let Pearson and McGraw Hill continue to sell their books for $15 or whatever they want.  We (we including our students) can make better content–things that are not just textbooks, but new kinds of representations in multimedia, for free, and we can give them away for free.  And we can use Apple’s distribution channel…or not.

We do have to find ways to make these new things (untextbooks) useful on more than just the one kind of device.  I doubt that will be far off.  An online iBooks format emulator? A translator to HTML 5? There will be a way, I’m sure.

Look for my untextbook Quacks, Yokels and Everyday Folk, coming soon!


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