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iBooks Textbooks: Not Exactly Innovation in Education

No iPhone 5, no iPad 3, no update to the Mac Pro range, at Thursday’s Apple education event in New York. No, the innovations Apple were unwrapping at the Guggenheim were altogether more surprising.

Claiming to “re-invent the textbook,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for Worldwide Marketing, portrayed Apple as a crusader for educational innovation, and announced a new product range that, according to one of the talking-head teachers roped in to shill for iBooks textbooks, would “change my students’ lives for the better.”

This was intended to be, clearly, a spectacular advance, a leap forward in educational technology that would disrupt, innovate, surprise, delight; certainly, for me, a technology commentator, and a teacher since 1991, this should have been a revolutionary innovation. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

A company such as Apple should, surely, have the potential not simply to embellish and enhance the textbook as it exists in its current paradigm; they should have it in them, especially if they are to have the hubris to claim that they are “reinventing” the textbook, to introduce something utterly radical, something that turns the current understanding of the textbook utterly on its head.

Instead, Apple’s presentation should have been fronted by Rod Serling. I was watching the thing on a fast, powerful, modern laptop computer — an Apple MacBook Pro with a quad-core Intel processor, accessing fast Internet over a wireless connection, and downloading the new product as it was announced onto an Apple iPad — a tablet computer! — at the same time. And yet, and yet… what was being shown off, what was touted as a reinvention of the textbook, belonged back in the mid 1990s.

An iBooks textbook, we were promised, would be interactive. Interactivity in content has been a fundamental aspect of computer-aided delivery for as long as we’ve had CD-ROMs — I updated my Mac IIsi to a IIvx back in 1995 because I really wanted the CD-ROM drive, and immediately started playing with multimedia titles that were starting to appear. And what made these titles attractive was the fact that they could build on simple static text, offering, as it was known then, a multimedia experience — video, animation, audio.

This was, as I say, seventeen years ago — around the time some of the target audience of the iBooks textbooks were born. In those seventeen years, computer-mediated instructional materials (“textbook” is such an old-fashioned word) should, surely, have moved on. But what I find on my iPad today, in 2012 (for, at least, as long as iBooks 2 is usable; my experience so far is that it’s as unstable as a hippo on rollerskates) is an experience that, other than being on my ever-so-modern tablet computer, is, essentially, the same as that offered by multimedia CD-ROMs back in the early 90s.

It is true that iBooks textbooks offer a level of engagement that paper books are unable to match, and there is definitely evidence to suggest that novelty in presentation, especially when that novelty involves computers, will, at least temporarily, reduce affective barriers to learning. I know — I did some of the research as a graduate student, again back in the mid-1990s. But those years also saw an incipient movement to take the possibilities offered by computers to personalise and individualise the learning experience offered by technology and exploit the platforms available even fifteen years ago.

At a language-teaching conference in Japan in, I believe, 1999 or 2000, I listened to a presentation on adaptive language testing, a system that tested, observed student performance, and then selected the next instruction-testing sequence based on that performance. While this was, at that point, a somewhat rudimentary application of the principles involved, it at least showed that computers were able to make decisions on what to do next based on what had preceded that decision. iBooks 2 offers no such flexibility, as far as I can tell so far.

Partly this is due to the fact that iBooks textbooks are a product of iBooks Author, itself essentially the love child of iWork’s Pages and Keynote. Absent, so far, are any programming tools, even simple ones, that can allow any form of data-storing scripting, which is a shame, since programs such as FileMaker Pro, SuperCard, even HyperCard (of sainted memory) allow solutions to be created that offer a degree of decision-based scripting. Had Apple incorporated such elements into iBooks Author, a whole new level of interactivity and personalised learning could have been generated: “Steve, I see you’re spending a lot of time on simple harmonic motion, but you’re not doing very well on the end-of-topic quiz. Would you like some extra help with this topic?” But while the student can interact with the content, the content remains unable to interact with the student, and this seems to be an opportunity badly missed; I can only hope that scripting will feature strongly in a future version of iBooks Author.

As it stands, iBooks textbooks offers very little that hasn’t been on offer for nearly twenty years. Far from reinventing the textbook, Apple have simply taken an existing concept and applied it to a new medium, with, it appears, relatively little in the way of points of difference due to the particular nature of the iPad platform. And so, instead of static text and static images on a page, we are now presented with static text and some moving images on a page. This is a small step forward in terms of paper textbooks, but, in terms of the state of the art with regard to multimedia presentation, it is, absent scripting, possibly even a retrograde step.

In terms of the pedagogy, too, advances are lacking. Beginning with Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences back in the 1980s, educational theory has emphasised learning modalities; it is impossible to escape a teacher-training programme in, at the very least, the United States or New Zealand, without having the concept of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learners pounded deep into one’s brain; it is equally impossible to survive a lesson observation without some questioning of how much a teacher has addressed all of his students’ learning styles.

Textbooks, of course, by their very nature are limited to the visual modality; that is an inescapable constraint of paper. But this constraint, by and large, remains intact in an iBooks textbook, even though the technology no longer imposes it. The essence of an iBooks textbook is written text — everything else is an adjunct to that written text.

Being a physics teacher, I naturally downloaded a sample of McGraw Hill’s physics textbook, and played with the chapters on waves and vibration. This has never been the easiest topic in the world to teach in the classroom; springs, ropes and waveform generators can be rather temperamental, and while on a good day a standing wave can be fun, I’ve yet to see a teacher actually manage a third harmonic in a rope on demand. This is where the potential of iBooks 2 is teased to teachers, but even then not entirely brilliantly implemented, and this is a function of the file-size limitation set by Apple.

iBooks textbooks, we have been told, can be up to 2 GB in size if they are to be distributed through the iBookstore. This is reasonable — Apple is hoping to sell a lot of these books, of course, and so they need to make sure that their datacentres, already serving up iTunes, iCloud, and two App Stores, don’t suddenly start laboring under 15 GB behemoths. (This limitation, though, appears not to apply, for example, to the 2.77 GB of biology currently on offer from Pearson.)

I would like to see every photograph in my physics textbook link to a video of a dynamic experiment. But while videos of projectiles, and animations of graphs of their motion, would be a valuable enhancement to a textbook, their creation will inevitably increase production costs for the book, and slow down the editorial cycle somewhat. I already use YouTube to demonstrate things I can’t readily demonstrate in the classroom, such as the brick-on-a-rope-not-hitting-your-face illustration of conservation of energy, but I spend a lot of time doing quality control on YouTube videos; having a ready-made bundle of content on an iPad would be enormously beneficial. Similarly, trying to draw, on a flat, two-dimensional whiteboard, a diagram of the three-dimensional vectors of Maxwell’s Laws is guaranteed to give headaches — so much easier simply to call up the relevant page on an iPad. But the more content you include in your book, the bigger the file will be, and the longer it will take to download.

And downloading is an issue for many people. As I have written about in “Paying by the Bit: Internet Access in New Zealand” (15 January 2010), outside the United States not everyone, including schools, has access to unlimited Internet connections. If my students were issued iPads next month, for the start of the new school year, they would then need to download their textbooks. Would they do this at home? Given that a typical home Internet connection in New Zealand, assuming it even has broadband (dialup is still quite widespread here), has a data cap of 5–10 GB per month, it’s fair to assume that most of my students will want to download their books at school. Perhaps the school would download one instance of each book, and syncing could happen centrally; this would, of course, require that all students sync their iPads with the school’s computers, of which there are not that many; the headaches are multi-layered. Or my school would have to set up and maintain a Wi-FI network for this purpose; that simply becomes another associated expense.

This is before the school has even provided the iPads. Given the uproar over plans by Orewa College, a moderately well-off secondary school north of Auckland, to require that all incoming students buy iPads or similar, I very much doubt that my school, in the poorer end of south Auckland, would fare terribly well in requiring that parents purchase. This would then leave the school having to buy the devices themselves, which would be difficult. My school, with its socio-economic decile rating of 2, receives almost no funding from the “voluntary” contributions that other schools raise from parents. As a result, it is dependent almost solely on its operating budget of around $1,000 per student from the Ministry of Education. Given that iPads start at $799 here in New Zealand, a very generous educational bulk-purchase discount from Apple would be required in order to make this an even remotely feasible purchase.

In American schools, too, where budget crunches are hurting badly, I question how many schools will be able to afford this technology. Pinellas County in Florida, where I once taught, is facing a budget crisis such that teacher layoffs and furloughs are being proposed to try to make the books balance. Last year’s budget allowed for a per-student spend of $7,845; a $499 iPad would represent 6 percent of the entire funding allocation for each of the 103,000 students in the county. But while the per-student budget in Pinellas may seem significantly more generous than a New Zealand school’s funding, remember that out of that money must come teacher salaries, which make up 85 percent of the district’s budget; of the remaining $1,177, a $499 iPad is still a very big ask, and when teachers’ salaries are being considered fair game for budget reduction cuts, a five-million-dollar expenditure on iPads would not sit well.

So, in the end, is it worth it? Will students benefit from iPads with textbooks on them? Will they, indeed, benefit sufficiently to warrant the funds outlays involved? Yes, paper textbooks are expensive, and yes, they involve a buy-in that locks schools into using them for maybe five years. But, in physics, for example, the content being taught is not changing so rapidly that we need to replace our textbooks that often, even if wear and tear make it advisable. We can make do for another year; lock-in is not as terrible as it might seem.

But while iPads make it easy and relatively affordable to update content readily, how often will publishers offer free updates? By the time a publisher has updated a textbook to the extent that it actually exploits iBooks 2 and the iPad fully, will that then be a free update? In the meantime, the hardware costs of iPads is not one-off; once the up-front purchase has been made, there will be service costs. Do schools buy AppleCare? What happens to out-of-warranty repairs, in particular batteries wearing out? Will school insurance cover accidental loss, damage, theft?

Had iBooks 2 and iBooks Author been released back in 1996, when CD-ROMs were still a pretty neat idea, I would be writing a very different article. But today, when Apple are trying to claim that twenty-year-old ideas represent a “reinvention” of the textbook, I am less impressed. Schiller, see me after school. Grade: C-. Really must try harder.

[Steve McCabe is a Mac consultant, tech writer, and physics teacher in New Zealand. He writes about his adventures in New Zealand, he blogs about technology, and he has just finished rebuilding his personal Web site.]


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Comments about iBooks Textbooks: Not Exactly Innovation in Education
(Comments are closed.)

You honestly sound like a little child whining because they did not hear any news of an iPad 3, but other than that good article.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-22 20:56
That was a joke — no one expected any of those announcements.
Buzz Miler  2012-01-22 21:06
All I heard a well-reasoned, historically accurate and pedantically argued article that Apple should have paid to have written. And if pointy heads do reply, then give them back the lie... B
It seemed as if you expected Apple to have made colossal leaps forward in not only "textbooks", but also the general user interface and experience of all computers and the way humans consume knowledge, essentially over night in terms of human history. For thousands of years, humans have recorded and consumed information in exactly the way you criticize here, text and images.

Honestly, I'm not sure what you expected. Apple claims to have reinvented "the textbook", not "the entire learning experience".
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-22 20:57
Not overnight: Apple has been in the educational software and hardware business for over 30 years, and the new iteration of the company is now over 13 years old.
30 years out of what, a few thousand years of human use of "static" written language??? How revolutionary can you expect ONE company to be?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-22 21:36
In that context, no. But in the context of taking what was learned over 30+ years and applying it, absolutely.

(I'm a fan of print, in any case.)
I for one agree with Steve McCabe's assessment of Apples's newest exploitative attempts to hemorrhage more money out of its cult base. Children (or adults for that matter) need to learn the fundamentals of science, reading, mathematics, and the arts, not how to bow to the goddess (yes, I said goddess) of Jobs (R.I.P.) and the fairy club at Apple.
When will educators wise up and see that real education reform starts with building a foundation of logic, reading skills, proper grammar, and a basic level of human decency (because God knows they aren't getting it from society or the home), and not whether their student's can successfully launch irate birds at swine (which is about all an iPad is good for anyhow).
You obviously don't own an iPad, as if you think that angry birds is the only thing that can be done on an iPad you are mistaken (I run my entire business and personal life, from my ipad). I do agree that an education is based around the foundations you have mentioned, but do you mean to say that the only way that people can get these foundations are from a paper text book (as it is all possible to do on an iPad your ignorance is once again highlighted)? So as long as you sit with your head firmly buried in 19th century sand you will be left behind, this isn't a negative as we need the strong to survive not the weak and feeble minded . Apple said they revolutionised the textbook, they didn't try or say they revolutionised the way we learn. Finally, consumers pay far less for an iPad then what I think it is worth, so why are you so jealous over the creators getting their just rewards from people willing to pay the asking price. The saying "Poor in mind, poor in hand " comes to mind
Actually I do use an iPad (for work) and I use a MacBook Pro. I am also up-to-date on the latest technology and such, so I am not, as you say, stuck in the 19th century. But I disagree with your assessment that Apple revolutionized the textbook. Far from it. The Gutenberg press revolutionized books because it shifted power from elites to the masses. All this does is re-shift it back to elites (those who can afford iPads, etc). I am not jealous over those who can afford to buy Apple (I for one think Apple is over-priced), but instead I am looking at this pragmatically when we can barely afford to buy regular books that kids can use. Buying hardware and software that necessitates more IT folks (believe me that institutions are struggling to bring Apple products into their fold from an IT standpoint) and more infrastructure doesn't make sense economically. Apple has not revolutionized anything, they just made it easier for ADD teachers to keep their eyes off the real goal of education.
With my iPad I have learnt a new language (Hungarian), I have used it to master the guitar (after a few years of playing sporadically I have really increased my skill dramatically after using apps to help me). The ipad is a gateway to an answer to almost any question that I have (obviously knowing where to look is key). Apple revolutionised the way in which the Internet was accessed and they have now harnessed a way in which to provide credible learning material in an interactive way to learn, from a central location, to the world. Potentially making the role of a teacher redundant. Any child given an iPad anywhere in the world, would be able to gain knowledge (with or without iBooks) far better then most teachers would be able to provide it. Thus making it not only a versatile tool of education but a universal one. So not only did they revolutionised textbook they revolutionised education. The workman can not blame his tool when using an iPad to gain knowledge!
I am not denying that you can learn great things with the iPad but what I am disagreeing with is that it is revolutionizing education. You could have easily done all those things with a PC or MacBook or, gasp, a book!! (P.s. I learned several languages by using books and a PC, so does that make them innovative?) Educators twenty years ago said the same thing about CD-ROMs (hence Rosetta Stone, etc). IPads are just a tool and they will soon go the way of 8-track and floppy disks and will only be found at my local flee market. They will not revolutionize education because they are just a tool. To truly revolutionize education you cannot rely on plastic, metal, and the Apple logo. In fact, several universities are abandoning using iPads in their courses because it did not dramatically increase test scores or make students smarter. If anything, they found that cheating and rote learning has increased. What we need is educators that can teach not gimmicks.
You have been trying to get me to believe that books are in fact innovative and revolutioned education, but you yourself say that they are not, by our own words it can't be used as a learning tool on its own. So I am saying that, the same as you, that great things can be learnt on an iPad. I am also saying, as you have, that the book is an inferior learning tool. So in conclusion the iPad has done more to revolutionise education then the book as done. You really should think your arguments out before you post them. iPads may go obsolete but the next thing that will be released will be based on the technology of the iPad not of the book. You say that it did not dramatically increase test scores in universities, indicating that they did then increase. Only proving they are doing a better job then books. Also if universities are letting below par students in who are willing to cheat to get by, that is not Apple's fault. They revolutionised the process not the student
You also mention the Gutenburg press, which did admittedly provide a quicker way of distributing knowledge, but it did not then revolutionise the alphabet, or writing, or anything more then what the iPad has done. In fact Apple products have done excatly the same thing by providing knowledge to masses quicker then previously possible. I would, argue that it has, in fact, done a better job, in the 1400's when the press was invented only the elite (and even then the minority) could read, which might not be far from the truth today, but a substancial amount more of today's masses (20mil iPads sold worldwide), can access the knowledge on an ipad then the Gutenburg ever provided. The press was used to print the Gutenburg bible, which I see as the first mass production of propaganda. Again not a argument for the general progression and education of the masses. If your problem is with ADD teachers, simply give the child an iPad and it will pay that child 100% of it's attention 100% of the time
Your ignorance of the Gutenberg's influence on history is amazingly on display here. Because of the Gutenberg revolution, hundrds of millions of people were now able to access the Bible, which at the time (and arguably still is) was the greatest pieces of literature (it is telling that Shakespeare references the Bible more than any other work of literature). Having access to that book sparked a massive upheaval in education for both the poor and the elites, not to mention sparked a greater increase in access to knowledge than Apple has ever done (set the model for book printing up to the 1960's). More people, globally, learned to read and write using either a Gutenberg Bible or a subsequent derivation then all the Apple products sold combined. (I also take issue with the claim that the Bible is mass propaganda, but that is not a part of our discussion). Besides 20 million is 0.28% of the world's population, hardly a revolution. Apple products are quaint but they will fade with time.
What have I missed, it provided a quicker way for knowledge to be produced.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-26 20:11
Folks, let's not dig into propaganda and religion here. I think the relevant points about publishing have been made.
The opportunity to have lots of textbooks able to be easily carried and to have them updated relatively easily is nearly revolutionary. If apple can get textbook makers on board with this concept, then that will be a revolutionary change. Apple did it with the phone carriers (ripping access to content out of their grasp), and with the music companies. There were already smart phones and mp3 players. But the iPhone was revolutionary.

The multi-touch interaction with content is evolutionary and different than what we did in the 90's. Conceptually the same, but experientially very different.

We will have to wait an see.

If I had an iPad in college instead of the many weighty texts I carried, even without interactive content, I would have studied at many times when I did not have my books. Small radical change.

Even more radical futures are welcome.
Steve McCabe  2012-01-23 00:31
If iBooks Textbooks offer nothing more than "the opportunity to have textbooks able to be easily carried and to have them updated relatively easily," then the technology really hasn't advanced. What you describe here could be achieved with .pdf format, and could have been at least ten years ago.

I agree that there is a convergence of hardware and software that is attractive, but it simply isn't as compelling as the messianic tone of Thursday's presentation would have us believe.
Nelis van Nahuijs  2012-01-23 17:06
In the 1990s I tried to get into the learning market with the kind of intelligent learning tracks you described, e.g., anticipating student progress, interactional conversation about the (lack of) progress and learners preference for visual or auditive material. Starting with Authorware I switched to Director later on because it was much more flexible, which came at the prize of more Lingo programming. Those courses were very costly to produce, too costly it turned out, for the public educational market. Commercial educators taught me a lesson: they were not interested in better individualized and effective courseware, but just in selling more course hours.

And since hypertext developed the way it did, just one-dimensional point-and-click most of the time as we all experience every day on the Internet, that model became the expected experience for courseware. And I left the business because I wasn’t interested in that kind of productions. So, I do share your disappointment about the lack of progress made since those years. But who wants (or can) pay for the much more elaborate intelligence packaged in courseware you and I like so much?
I'm with you in feeling that the messianic tone didn't match the actual product. But seeing a sample of the multi-touch book Ecology I'm getting the feeling that the "convergence of hardware and software" you mention is more than a little attractive. And the modest (or nonexistent) nature of the multimedia advances, in something that's instantly recognizable as a textbook rather than a multimedia extravaganza, may actually be part of the charm. My sense was that this is something that students will actually read, rather than skimming through looking for the next cool bit of technology.

I'm afraid that, like many technological advances, this is going to be reachable chiefly by reasonably wealthy tertiary institutions initially, and eventually trickle down--even though Apple seems to be aiming at the secondary market.
Francisco Hirsch  2012-01-23 08:01
Children should be taught to read, write, to do math, think logically, to search and organize.
Technology is a great help. It empowers people. But it's teachers and parents who make the difference. If you have teachers that like, and can, teach, parents that are interested in what their children learn, and work with the teacher (and not against), you will have children that learn.
Machines alone are useless except to very gifted persons.
Bad teachers don't get better with technology.
DanteMXII  2012-01-23 09:30
Don't hate the platform, hate the producer.

Really though, you expect textbook manufacturers to be able to light off fireworks in their itexts the day of release? This is the exact same negative initial response as is seen in every apple release. Remember all of the tampon jokes and dismissals of the ipad? Yes, this is what *you* sound like.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-24 07:04
No, I really don't think so. We're trying to provide a balanced view of the situation, which is why we've published articles on both the pro and con sides, and from the business perspective.

Apple is not perfect and should not be lauded blindly for everything they do. Ping hasn't exactly taken over for Facebook, and remains the laughable joke it has been from the very first day.

Praise is earned, and yes, we'll certainly be following this more closely, but at the moment, Apple has merely opened the door, not walked through.
Lisa Spangenberg  2012-01-23 21:40
Look, iBooks Author isn't as adaptable or powerful as HyperCard, which, yeah, I did notice. But despite the obsession with the codex printed book, this is at least a start. I can teach faculty in the Humanities to use it. I can even teach them to modify the templates, and create their own.

It's a start. It's right now the best option for the average tenure track or above college faculty member.

What's more, iBooks Author isn't going to take five or more highly skilled production professionals to create a rich multimedia text--which it absolutely did in the glorious years of HyperCard in the 1990s.

I'm not ecstatic, but yeah, I can use this.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-24 07:05
One thing about iBooks Author that we've been forgetting is the Dashcode integration. I can't quite wrap my head around what that provides, but it might be very cool, especially for self-updating content.
Steve McCabe wrote "computer-mediated instructional materials (“textbook” is such an old-fashioned word)"

Old-fashioned indeed. To me, the term "Textbooks" means books containing black and white text, the digital equivalent of .txt files? With computing devices "just the text" means only the writing (typing), and not graphics, etc. Instructual materials doesn't roll of the tongue, and calls for a new shortened term, perhaps "instrumats?"
Rob Gendreau  2012-01-25 09:45
Mr. McCabe is SO right; this is exactly what I learned from teaching high school in the 80's-90's. Those CD ROMs from companies like Voyager were gonna revolutionize education. Remember Maus? But when all was said and done we needed content that could go home with students. Like a paperback of "Of Mice and Men."

And many commentators on iAuthor ignore how textbooks are provided to public schools in big states. It's a massively bureaucratic process with bazillions of levels of approval and vetting. It makes drug approvals look easy. The odds of an iAuthor generated textbook winding up as say an American history text in California is zero. Nothing is gonna change in these public schools until the big textbook companies jump in and create their own ebooks. You simply cannot get that history textbook into a California high school through the iTunes Store.
Patricia  2012-01-28 18:59
I think the publishers should offer the schools a bundled package including an iPad with their textbooks preloaded. This will relieve the school of the initial burden of installing the textbooks. They should also provide some initial training, service contracts, etc. The pricing should be no more expensive than a supply of textbooks amortized over 5 years.