January 19, 2012

· Nerdery · IT · Apple

Yesterday Apple launched some new applications and services aimed at the education market. They extended the iBooks app to include a textbook store; they announced some deals with major textbook publishers; and they released a free application you can use to write textbooks, and which allows you to publish them on the store. They made their iTunes U service a separate application. The app replicates what’s already available on iTunes, but also seeks to replace some or all of what’s offered by course management systems.

Something’s Always Wrong with Education

The education market is enormous and very heterogeneous. Apple’s initiative covers both grade schools and universities. Those are very different settings, which themselves vary hugely. And as anyone will tell you, the American education system has been in crisis, or facing some central challenge, or in need of some sort of fundamental reform, for a very long time now. Everyone has a scheme designed to fix it.

The alleged problem this time is that in the 21st century students and teachers are being forced to use an outmoded technology from 1950: the textbook. To be honest I was a little disappointed that the teacher in the video didn’t just go the whole hog and condemn the printed book itself as an outmoded technology from 1450. The solution involves Apple selling as many iPads as possible, and taking a cut of textbook sales as well. The demo textbooks shown at the event of course looked terrific, as one would expect. Dynamic transitions, animations, high-quality photography and video, highlighting and note-taking, all that good stuff.

Technology is Always About to Transform Education

Schools have been down the techno-salvation path before with other kinds of hardware and software. It’s worth remembering just how many technologies we already have that were supposed to transform education beyond all recognition. Radio, the television, the VCR, the personal computer, email, the Internet and the web … All of these have been trumpeted by someone as having the power to make education What It Really Ought To Be. The same goes for smaller developments within larger technological shifts. Chatrooms, MUDs, bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, on and on. Sometimes things do change, in big ways. The TV and (later) the VCR helped make the Open University possible in the UK, for instance. (Which in turn helped make some good comedy possible, as well.) Of course, having a national broadcasting corporation and a state-financed system of faculty and tutors was helpful, too.

Just this week, Wikipedia’s blackout showed how much it has insinuated itself into people’s lives. Of course, the horrors uncovered by Herpderpedia remind you that it’s perfectly possible for a technology to transform how students seek out and use knowledge while not doing much for the basically clueless. Along with the big shifts have come mid-range changes. The availability of free, high-quality software for statistical analysis, for instance, is one of dozens of changes that are substantial or even remarkable within their domain, but which don’t pretend to transform “school” tout court.

As for the textbooks themselves, I’m skeptical that the dynamic bells and whistles are all that effective. I can certainly think of particular cases where they could be. But it’s also easy to imagine books filled with movies or demos that are watched once and then ignored. What Apple laid out yesterday is rooted in the 1990s and its vision of multimedia-enhanced texts. Fine as far as it goes, but don’t pretend it’s going to revolutionize schooling. School is an institution, not just a building full of classrooms or a particular mode of instruction. Textbooks are not what make people hate school. iPad-based textbooks with zoomable pictures and some embedded movies will not make students love school.

Instapaper and the Persistence of the Textbook

Phil Schiller criticized the static, text-heavy format of the traditional texbook. Far better to present information dynamically with graphics, supporting illustrations, movies, interactive components and all the rest of it. Sure, why not? But—consider how many of the most sophisticated computer users consume “content” online, perhaps especially the ones who use iPads. Do they seek out material that looks like this? Do they want multi-modal, multimedia formats? Do they love jazzy Infographics? Do they relish the prospect of Webinars, Youtube tutorials, or recorded lectures? No. They use Instapaper or some equivalent tool to create reading lists for themselves, and read those articles in a format that deliberately strips out a lot of the original presentation and replaces it with simple, clean, easy-to-read, blocks of text that look a lot like a well-designed piece of outmoded 1950s technology.

Why do people like Instapaper so much? It’s because they’ve chosen to read what they save, and the app lets them keep it and read it in a straightforward, uncluttered way. Finding the good stuff is the hard part, along with the ability, motivation, and opportunity to read things: once you’re there, you don’t need the dynamic illustrations or zooming or supporting illustrations. You’ll read it because you’re already interested in it, and you’ll even seek out and pay for a way to make the reading and learning experience static and simple, because you don’t want to be distracted. A similar point applies in education. The promise of “technology in the classroom” has always been that it will magically “engage” students with what they have to learn. But it hardly ever does, or does only at the margin. You still need a good teacher, an opportunity to learn, and some motivation of your own. Having a good breakfast in your belly helps as well. More dynamic textbooks aren’t the solution to the problems of education—they’re not even the solution to the problem of textbooks.

It’s strange to see Apple going down this well-worn road. When the iPad was launched, a standard criticism was to say it’s a device made for consuming content rather than actively making or doing things. But developers quickly found ways to make it a lot more interesting than that. Apps like GarageBand or Star Walk or Leafsnap—there are loads more—take advantage of the iPad’s computing power and portability in ways that put it in a different class of activity from watching a video, reading a textbook, or just passively sitting at a computer. It’s these sort of use-cases where a device like the iPad really shines. So it’s a pity that Apple has chosen to re-enter the education market with a pitch about Reinventing the Textbook that, frankly, sounds pretty old hat. The reason, I suppose, is that there’s potentially a lot of money to be made selling the things to schools as replacements for the books.

The College Level

I teach at one of the universities mentioned in Schiller’s talk yesterday. At the University level, the most immediate difference from the K-12 case is that faculty typically get to choose which textbook (if any) to use in their courses. So there’s essentially none of the political fighting about textbook content that bedevils public grade schools. Students also have to buy their own books rather than rent them from the school (or have the school buy them).

The most familiar pathology of the textbook market is that publishers hate used booksellers. Publishers want every student to buy a new copy of their text, but—Phil Schiller’s claims notwithstanding—books are annoyingly durable. To fight this, publishers (and textbook authors) produce new editions as often as possible and try to get faculty to require the most recent iteration. There are various inducements on offer to do this, starting with free copies for the instructor and any TAs. As my friend Gabriel Rossman noted the other day, textbook catalogs pitched at faculty often come with little or no information about how much the book will cost students.

Image courtesy of ambrown.

Apple’s proposed model would kill the used market, dead. The presentation emphasized that once you buy a book you always own it, and you can download it to any new devices you buy. But a corollary is that once you’re done with the book you can’t give or sell it to anyone else. So, at least initially, publishers can charge much less for their textbooks and make it up on volume. That’s fine by me if students end up paying less, though I immediately wonder whether the next step would be for publishers to modularize the books. Instead of your one giant Bio or Calc or Econ book for $14.99 rather than $129.99, you can have various shorter books available for the same price, but have to buy all of them over the course of a year or semester—like 19th century serial novels. This would likely be pitched to faculty as allowing for greater flexibility in curriculum construction, but again it’s the students who end up paying for the books.

From my point of view, both the iBooks Author and iTunes U apps are potentially very useful for taking sets of lecture notes and making them available to students easily. Many faculty already post their Keynote or PowerPoint slides so students can review them (or use them to avoid coming to class). The iBooks Author app seems like a natural extension of this, especially given its compatability with Keynote presentations. As for iTunes U, here Apple may be pushing into course-management territory currently dominated by systems like Blackboard and Sakai. This is an easy domain for Apple to take over if it wishes, as these systems range from the merely clunky to the aggressively shitty.

Finally there’s the question of getting college students to buy iPads. This is a more difficult proposition than it might appear. Most students now buy a computer when entering college. As far as I can see there is essentially no compelling reason for a freshman to buy an iPad instead of something like a Macbook Air, for the simple reason that students are required to write too much to not have a computer with a keyboard. Sure, it’s possible to set up a writing environment on an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, or even write small amounts of text using the on-screen keyboard. But it’s hard to see it competing with an Air or similar laptop. Anecdotally, the use-patterns in my classes bear this out: almost all my students own a laptop, less than ten percent own an iPad, and no-one owns only an iPad. An unrepresentative sample, sure, but it skews towards students who are relatively early adopters and able to afford the hardware. This makes me wonder whether the iPad will get widespread traction on campuses without institutional support in the form of subsidized purchasing programs or pools of iPads available for particular classes—Duke already has some of the latter. I will say, though, that over the longer term it’s possible that students who start on iPads early and get a lot of practice in will just become habituated to typing on glass. If it’s just a question of technology transition via cohort replacement, that would make my (and my current students’) carping about a physical keyboard much less relevant. Kids in grade school would come to them early and use them naturally, as with other kinds of new technology. This is of course another reason for Apple to get entrenched in the K-12 market.

Encarta is not the Future

Nevertheless, the prospect of having students who are able to type fluently on glass doesn’t make me like the push for electronic textbooks any better. It seems to me that what the iPad does really well is less about being a whizzy textbook-with-moving-pictures and more about being the sort of device that lets you do things that neither a regular laptop, nor a traditional textbook, nor a single-purpose bit of hardware can do. There’s the GPS, the camera, the accelerometer, the touch interface—the best iPad apps tend to take advantage of these features in some novel way, allowing you to do or make something cool, often in a participatory fashion. Ironically, the best iPad apps for reading things—like Instapaper—work to make the iPad more like a simple, static, easily-read book or article, not less. If the iPad is going to make new inroads in education, let alone transform it, I think it will be by way of specialized apps that take advantage of the many great capabilities of the iPad, not through an augmented-textbook model that reanimates the corpse of Microsoft Encarta.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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