Apple’s textbooks and deeply digital learning

January 20th, 2012 by Chad Dorsey

I was on the plane returning from Wednesday’s great Cyberlearning Summit when Apple went live with its announcement about iBooks 2 and its foray into the textbook game. This is particularly relevant, as it applies directly to the concerns about digital textbooks and innovation we’ve been addressing in our calls for deeply digital learning. I’m sure I’ll have more to come, but here are some initial thoughts about this announcement and its implications.

Innovation? In many ways, the announcement was an example of the many things there are to be concerned about regarding shallow innovations in digital learning. The main features touted about digital textbooks were the obvious ones. They weigh less. They don’t fray at the edges. They can include images and videos. You can highlight. You can jump to individual sections, pages, or chapters. These are all good features of digital books, but do very little to move us past the transmissionist pedagogy that textbooks represent so strongly today.

Openness? A second large concern raised by many in the ensuing blogosphere echoes relates to the lack of openness that these textbooks permit. Creation occurs principally or solely (for now) on a Mac, via Apple’s iBooks Author application, and books created with this are for use on the iPad only, not even for use on Mac computers. Somewhat understandable, all, since Apple is all about ecosystems, and the iPad is certainly an imaginably good tool for use in the classroom. However, the strictures extend further in ways that seem relatively unpalatable in the long run. According to the iBooks Author EULA, as Dan Wineman identifies, the mere act of creating books via this application is supposed to legally restrict where they can be sold or distributed. This ranges from surprising to shocking, depending upon your views, and the viability of such a model will remain to be seen. Further, the standard used for iBooks, while a thin wrapper over ePub3, is apparently a closed standard, and the application is unlikely to output in formats that permit content to be used and distributed as widely as should be possible for educational materials.

However, there is a slight silver (gray?) lining involved, as the EULA does make it clear that textbooks created with iBooks Author can be distributed for free at will, seemingly across platforms as well. As long as you don’t ever want to attach a price to the materials, this may provide an out. May is the operative term, however, seeing as Apple has certainly been known to change its terms on various whims in the past.

Deeply Digital possibilities? This is where things get a bit interesting. Taking all the former concerns into stride (which may well be too difficult to do for many), the most intriguing and underreported innovation may be yet to be discovered within this. The possibility of creating custom widgets for iBooks using HTML5 and Javascript holds intriguing ramifications. Depending upon the potential and limitations of these widgets, it may be possible to begin opening up aspects of learning that transcend the mundane and push toward deeply digital learning. It’s yet unclear, and will require some cracks from programmers (in our camp as well as others) to try to stretch the possibilities of these Dashcode widgets for the iPad to see what they can enable. True computational models and simulations, rather than basic interactive images or animations? Access to probeware and sensors? Outside access to tools and data streams? Potential for real-time formative assessment and reporting on student progress?

It’s likely that some, but not all, of these will indeed be possible, and the iPad is a beautiful platform to create things for with creation tools that are usually equally elegant. Whether these push the possibilities of technology toward capabilities that can truly make a difference for teaching and learning or whether Apple’s format and strictures will limit these examples to another small stride or shallow cut at innovative educational technology remains to be seen.

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