This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2012-01-21 at 12:27 p.m.
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Why iBooks Author is a Big Deal

by Michael E. Cohen

When Apple made its education announcements last week (see “Apple Goes Back to School with iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U [1],” 19 January 2012), the Web reverberated almost instantly with a deafening clamor of commentary and criticism. For some people, Apple’s end-user license agreement (EULA) for its iBooks Author program was a show-stopper [2], as well as providing corroborating evidence for the theory that Apple was as mendacious and evil as many had feared all along. For others, it was the new iBooks multi-touch book file format, which was seen as a direct attack against ebook standards and a betrayal of Apple’s commitment to open standards. And for still others, including our own Glenn Fleishman [3], it was Apple’s marketing message itself that evoked frustration and disappointment.

Although much of the criticism of Apple and iBooks Author is deserved, I don’t care. Here’s why.

First, I think that the EULA, like iBooks Author itself, is version 1.0, and that it will change — Apple has changed EULAs before [4], notably with its iOS restriction against which development tools were used to create apps. Second, I think the file-format issue is something of a red herring: iBooks 2 still displays normal EPUBs just fine, and will likely support the EPUB 3.0 standard sooner or later.

Third, although, like Glenn, I have heard the “students are bored and software will fix it” pedagogical panacea claims all before, and probably, I think, heard much more of it than Glenn: So what? It was ever thus.

I spent more than a quarter of a century in the thick of educational software development and interactive multimedia production, under the aegis of both educational institutions and publishing companies. Most of those for whom I developed such materials claimed the same magical pedagogical powers for the stuff on which I worked that Apple claimed for iBooks Author last week. Then, as now, it was over-reaching marketing nonsense. But most marketing is just that: over-reaching nonsense.

Teaching is hard. It was hard in a one-room schoolroom with slate-toting students and it is hard in a modern, media-rich classroom filled with digital tablet-bearing students. Furthermore, bad teachers are bad teachers no matter what tools they have available, and good teachers are good teachers, whether armed with chalk or laser pointers. Creating curricula that work effectively with disparate assemblages of young humans of various backgrounds, home environments, and states of cognitive development is enormously difficult, no matter the media used to deliver the curricular materials.

And it always will be.

But here’s the thing: having access to good instructional resources is always better for students and for teachers than not having such access. And although interactive multimedia textbooks of the type that iBooks Author makes so very easy to prepare probably won’t make a bad teacher into a good one or a poor student into a candidate for valedictorian, it is much better to have them available for teachers and for students than not.

Availability was the big stumbling block that tripped up most of the instructional projects I worked on since the early 1980s. At the beginning of my instructional technology odyssey, computers in classrooms were very rare, and teacher familiarity with digital technology all but non-existent. Back then, one really had to do a Bolshoi-scale song-and-dance just to get even small instructional technology pilot programs established.

Later, the biggest availability issue lay not in convincing the Powers That Be that interactive media had a place in education, but in finding the financial resources to build the necessary computer labs. And, just as costly — if not more so — was finding and hiring the people to develop the materials for those labs: the development tools were difficult to use, expensive, and hard to come by, and those individuals who had both the pedagogical and the technological knowledge to employ those tools effectively were just as expensive and hard to find.

Today, however, low-cost digital media tablets herald the end of the expensive dedicated computer lab. Sure, a $500 iPad is not cheap, but it’s far cheaper and far more within the reach of parents and schools than the bolted-down lab machines of years gone by. At the same time, though, cost and difficulty of developing rich instructional materials for these new devices has not seen a similarly drastic decline.

Until iBooks Author. Here is a tool that most teachers who are capable of writing an email can master. Here is a tool that produces something that is enough like a book that even a teacher with no training in computer-based pedagogy can understand and see how to use for teaching. Here is a tool that can deliver certain instructional experiences that are just much harder to deliver from a paper book, even when mediated by a teacher of exceptional skill.

No, I don’t expect that iBooks Author will be the One True Magic Bullet that will slay all the pedagogical woes of the world or even most of them. Nor do I see it being even the one true instructional material development application for the ebook generation.

What I do see, however, is that iBooks Author and Apple’s related educational initiatives have a real chance of finally tearing down the availability stumbling blocks.

I think that’s a good thing.