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

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.

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