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Teaching with tech: could iBooks Author spark an education revolution?

Late last week, Apple announced the launch of a new piece of software, iBooks Author, and a new version of its eBook reader, iBooks 2. It’s a development that promises to accelerate the move to interactive…

The days of bulky textbooks could soon be behind us. Apple

Late last week, Apple announced the launch of a new piece of software, iBooks Author, and a new version of its eBook reader, iBooks 2. It’s a development that promises to accelerate the move to interactive eBooks, by radically simplifying their development.

iBooks Author does to eBooks what Apple’s GarageBand does to producing music – it makes the development of an interactive eBook as simple as dropping in a presentation or document. Videos, audio and other interactive elements can also be included, and the software automatically positions these elements, adjusting text and layout.

Once produced, eBooks can be distributed through Apple’s iBooks store – after going through the Apple review process – for download onto iPads, iPhones and the iPod Touch.

iBooks 2, Apple’s new eBook reader, has been updated to support the new textbook format and has launched in the US with a sample of beautifully crafted high school textbooks covering science and maths.

A catalyst for change?

It’s an ironic feature of new technology – the social and cultural change that new tech brings is so unequal. Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than in education.

Kids, living permanently connected and socially mediated lives, are transported into the dark ages the moment they step into a classroom. Although there are examples of excellence and progress, there are many classrooms in which teaching and learning practices have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

In the early 1980s, MIT Professor Seymour Papert believed personal computers would bring about radical changes in schools, both in the way students learned and how educators taught.

Using computers, Papert thought, students would be able to move at their own pace, learning, experimenting and testing themselves. Teachers would become facilitators and guides, and not the source of the content.

It’s now 30 years later and progress has been slow. Teaching has barely scratched the surface of the potential integration of computers (especially mobile devices) into the classroom.

There are many reasons for this. Lack of funding, training and infrastructure play a large part, along with a fear of change and the potential scrutiny and criticism this change may spark off.

It is possible, though, that we are at a point where this might all change.


The platform is right

One of the impediments to integrating computers into the classroom has been purely practical – in many schools, there was literally nowhere to put them. Even with notebooks, issues such as power and storage were enough to limit their use.

Tablets such as the iPad are an ideal platform because of their weight, size, battery life and versatility. Importantly, a tablet also doesn’t form a physical barrier between student and teacher in the same way that a desktop or even notebook computer can.

The iPad’s versatility is starting to be recognised, with roughly 1.5 million iPads now used in educational establishments. Some universities and schools have even started issuing students with iPads.

The content is coming

The second significant roadblock in the way of using computers in education has been the lack of content. More specifically, there has been a lack of electronic versions of textbooks that are tailored to a learning curriculum.

Traditional publishers have not rushed into the eBook market, with Forrester Research estimating that eBooks make up only 2.8% of the US$8 billion textbook market in the US. Reasons for this include:

  • the fear of sabotaging profits on print versions of the texts
  • the cost of eBook production, and
  • the fragmentation of publishing formats and platforms.

(Interestingly, eBook sales in general exceeded print book sales on Amazon for the first time last year.)

Of course, publishers have now learned the inevitability of an electronic future for textbooks. The fear of not being part of this will drive the move from print.

iBooks Author makes it easier than ever before to create your own eBook. Apple

The release of iBooks Author (a free application for Mac) opens up the production of educational material to anyone. It’s not so much the ability to author the books simply – although this is significant – but the ability to distribute, and potentially get paid for, such works. As with its apps, Apple has created an ecosystem with critical mass that makes it worth the effort of producing books in this way.

Of course it’s not just books that are important for content. Apple has for some time been delivering educational video and audio content through iTunes U. This education-specific section of iTunes has seen 600 million downloads of educational video, audio and study material since it started in 2007. Stanford University and the Open University top the list of universities providing material, each with more than 30 million downloads.

Last week, Apple also announced the availability of a dedicated iTunes U app. This app joins 200,000 educational apps in the iTunes App Store.

Is Apple the future of education?

Every announcement from Apple seems to bring out the sceptics.

There is resentment at the revenue cut that Apple takes when products are sold through their sales network. With iBooks Author, the License Agreement prohibits the use of eBooks produced in this way to be distributed anywhere other than through the iBooks store, where Apple takes 30% of the revenue. (This limitation doesn’t seem to exist for content given away for free.)

What the critics haven’t mentioned is that most textbook authors receive little financial return for their efforts from publishers. In most cases textbooks are written out of dedication or for academic recognition, with the financial returns rarely covering the time invested in the writing.


Further criticisms have been levelled at Apple for creating a closed environment that forces people to use Apple products to access their content. This is in contrast to Amazon, Google and others that provide software that allows users to access their media purchases on any platform. Sites such as the Khan Academy provide high quality instructional videos for free and there is a wealth of free educational websites available on the internet.

Finally, critics argue that in American schools at least, the money for iPads would be better spent on recruiting and training teachers. Their argument is that there’s little evidence to show iPads contribute to improved learning outcomes.

But a report released last week about a pilot study found students using an algebra application on an iPad (instead of a printed textbook) performed 20% better in California Standard Tests.

What next?

For anyone involved in education – whether a teacher, administrator, parent or student – the ability to produce and distribute educational material represents an exciting and pivotal moment. All of the necessary stars have aligned to spur the move to digital educational material.

Of course we haven’t yet seen how Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others will respond to this, but the net result is sure to be positive for learners and teachers everwhere.

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Aidan WIlson

    PhD candidate

    I agree with most of your points here, but the end-user license agreement that you mention also gives Apple ownership of any 'work' produced using this iBooks Author program, and prohibits its distribution in any way other than through its own channels. See <a href="">here</a>;. And now I <a href="">read</a>; that they're trying to kill off the open-source and free EPUB format.

    I consider this unreasonable.

    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Aidan WIlson

      Thanks Aidan. Apple would exert ownership on the product you produce from iBooks Author, not the actual content - you can reformat and sell that wherever you want. Given that the output of iBooks Author is largely proprietary anyway, it won't do you much good as a platform for other publishers.

      You are right, there are trade offs on using iBooks Author for selling commercial works. However, I have contributed in the past to text books where I was paid on a per word basis with *no* rights to the work. Academics regularly sign up to even more restrictive practices from journal publishers with *no* payments - i.e. the journal publishers take a 100% cut not a 30% one.

      For many, the sheer distribution power of the iBooks Store is enough of an incentive to distribute this way - and of course, if it is free, there are no restrictions - so incentive to provide text books through "open access"?

  2. y t

    logged in via Twitter

    ebook, epub, ibook, pdf, text, apps, websites !
    What is needed in this "affair" is a new role more than anything else.
    This new role could be described as "personal contracts/licences holder" "account managers for personal contract/licences and login/passwds or certificates"(no contents or copies in there, just references), something like that, several of them of course, and ability to move all your "assets" or "belongings" from one to the other, so that a trust relationship can exist regarding…

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  3. Andrew Jakubowicz

    Professor of Sociology and Codirector of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at University of Technology, Sydney

    The iBooks author aoo is a partial solution to a problem I identified some years ago for multimedia production by scholars using rich data. The model - known as MIRE - (Multimedia Interactive Research Environment) could produce a number of different outcomes drawing on a rich data base of multimedia and texts ( The iBooks Author output is one such template, but does not crack the wider problem of multiple template trajectories.

    One of the critical problems…

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    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Andrew Jakubowicz

      I think the idea of interactive journals is a good one and see potential for its use in tertiary education at least - packaging course material, publications and research presentations (as you have mentioned), teaching and research portfolios, etc. I have always had great hopes for the use of multimedia in (re)presenting research but as with teaching, researchers are still stuck with their old ways. The issue with the "grave" as a solution is whether the new generation haven't been moulded in the previous generation's image before they pass.

  4. David Healy


    The growing proliferation of tablet devices is a breakthrough for education. The reason is kilograms.

    Ever seen a 12-year-old carrying her textbooks AND her laptop onto the bus after school?

    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to David Healy

      Yes - and it is sad to see schools in WA still purchasing laptops that weigh close to 3 kg - especially when the kids are expected to bring the laptop into school each day and carry them between classes.

  5. utubersity

    logged in via Twitter

    Computers and tablets are only assistants and a good teacher’s will always be needed.
    However social networks such as facebook and YouTube as well as great resources including Wikipedia and Wolfram-Alpha are here to stay so that educators must use them in the teaching process.

    Some time ago YouTube moved a lot of their educational content to a separate domain giving people access a broad set of educational videos.

    However, some complaints include the variety of the content found there as…

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    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to utubersity

      The utubersity site looks very good - I hadn't come across that. It also possibly gets around the fact that YouTube is blocked by some schools in Australia at least (although kids have worked out how to use proxies to get around this).

  6. Frank Moore


    Hey guys, how much will schools be sued for in the next 20 years?
    Will the school's insurance cover the bills?
    Is this bill a bottomless pit - as the years and the damage goes on?
    Will the decision making principals (private schools only) be held personally liable for the damage done - to hundreds of persons - in their care?
    Will the state government have to write laws limiting liability from their victims?
    All this when some lawyer decides to run a "class" suit?
    They'll spruik it like this…

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    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Frank Moore

      I think this is only one reason that schools should pause around the logistics of kids using heavy laptops - fortunately the battery life is going to limit how long they can practically be used at school - and it is still up to the teacher to decide how much they are used in class.

    2. Frank Moore


      In reply to David Glance

      You don't appear to know what's happening David.
      Many schools have their students opening and using their laptops on almost every lesson, on every school day.
      And they provide power points for plugging them in... So range is not a problem.
      Then they fail to track how these laptops are used at home.
      More nightmares! How these things are used at home. Influence of Facebook. The ergonomic dilemmas of how to ensure proper ergonomics at both home and school.
      The long term privacy issues of what…

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    3. David Healy


      In reply to Frank Moore

      I have just retired after 8 years’ service as IT Manager at a private Perth secondary school.

      In May 2008, when a laptop program was proposed for our school, I proposed that we move in another direction, providing students with instruction in the use of small hand-held devices. I was specifically referring to mobile phones, but the specification could easily have been extended to include other devices then in widespread use (e.g., iPods). At that stage, machines like iPad/Galaxy/Kindle weren’t…

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    4. Frank Moore


      In reply to David Healy

      No worries. You're a good man David,
      Keep up the good works.
      I spoken to others in your (previous) position, and often those of us in IT carry the wounds of too much time at the keyboard. We understand that damage can be done.

      What's the problem with Academics and especially Academics concerned with Education/Teaching?
      Has it anything to do with Vendor directed funding?
      Is the prize of a funded PHD position overwhelming the commonsense review of student muscular / skeletal impact?


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