Saturday, January 21, 2012

Textbook No Longer: How Apple's Digital Textbook Revolution isn't so Revolutionary


What Apple Did Create

I should start by being fair.  Apple did not claim this would be a textbook revolution.  They didn't claim they were going to make something completely new that would make textbooks seem obsolete.  I just hoped for it. 

When Apple announced it would be hosting an educational "event" in NYC about a week and a half ago, the blogosphere started buzzing.  The consensus seemed to be that Apple would be moving into the textbook industry, mostly due to this quote from Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs:
His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,” he said. “But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.”
Ideas about what Apple could do to textbooks were flung around for about a week.  Fears and hopes for future textbook design were expressed in about equal parts; I followed the news and hoped for the best. 

Finally, last Thursday, Apple unveiled its creation: Digital Textbooks.  Of course, they are not just simple pdf or epub versions of existing textbooks, which would be ludicrous.  They will embed video and some interactive animations.  They will be "beautiful" and more engaging.  For a great summary of the new features, Gizmodo offers this article that lists them with screenshots.

The problem that I believe comes up for many of us who were waiting for this announcement (I spent my lunch period Thursday trying to find pertinent information and/or a video version of the annoucement) is that, really, finally, the iBook 2 is still just a textbook.  It is still text around pictures--albeit beautiful, digital pictures instead of grainy, printed ones--or accompanied by video (not a new idea, just become more convenient).  It is still a flat, informative piece of literature, one you can highlight (already an option on many ebooks with the right app) and write notes on.  It's not new.  It's not special.  It's just digital.

I had hoped, because iBook 2 requires an iPad to use it (also making it prohibitively expensive, but that's a separate issue that is expanded upon here), it would move outside the limitations of a traditional text.  I want, as suggested by Audrey Watters in her post over the iBook 2 and Apple's announcement, a deconstructed textbook.  I want the ability to create social interfaces for my classes.  I want to be able to interlink my own created activities with the "text" the students are reading without having to create a separate textbook of my own (especially one that will be owned by Apple forever afterward).

Quite simply, I want a totally new classroom resource.  I want to reinvent the way students experience classroom information.  I want a learning center.

What I Would Create (if I had money and resources)

I know it's easy to say that I'm disappointed in Apple's offerings.  It might even be the cool thing to do right now, so that might make it easy for you to dismiss my assessment.  My problem with this whole situation arises, however, from the very simple fact that I have been talking about what I would love to see in textbook changes for a while now, and the earliest, easiest incarnation of that was to add video and interactive animations.  I expect more out of Apple.  This is their job.

So I decided to throw out some of the ideas I've been bouncing off my husband.  Excuse the rambling order--I haven't really sat down and organized a true treatise on my digital textbook dream yet.

Deconstruction
Let's start with the basics of "deconstructed" textbooks.  How many of you have ever just sat down with a textbook for pleasure reading, as a child or as an adult?  Textbooks are not engaging.  I can read a historical book over the Rubicon's importance as a boundary to the Romans and enjoy it, but put the same information into the dry impersonal tone a textbook uses and I feel my eyes glaze over and my attention wander.  And I'm a teacher.  I live education. 

Even with shiny pictures and video, the text is still there, boring and ignored.

Instead of textbook text, I would like to see a selection of articles over each topic.  The articles already exist, it's just a matter of compiling them and making them available.  Articles are written to engage audiences so they will buy more magazines, newspapers, etc.; textbooks are made for captive audiences that have no choice.  Imagine if students didn't groan (even internally) every time a teacher asks them to open their textbooks.

I would like, for each topic, to have video options, image options, activity options.  I want to be able to choose articles, videos, images, etc. and to be able to drag and drop my choices into a program that makes them available to my students.

I want the option for real-time updates so my articles are always up-to-date and sensitive to new issues.

If I were to go with my biggest wish regarding this, I would like a system to filter news stories (written articles and videos) into relevant topics so I can grab them and use them to make my classes more relevant.

Lastly, with this system, I would love a calendar that lets me schedule article availability and helps refer students to the focus of the day.  I want interactivity between my own iPad (or tablet, or whatever, and yes, the teachers better have them too) and my students'.  Which leads to the next topic on my textbook wishlist.

Interconnectivity
There is a lot I would like to see in terms of interconnectivity.  Starting with teacher-student connectivity.  As mentioned above, I want to be able to choose content, then drag and drop it into a space that is then accessible to my students.  I want to be able to host class discussions and to send and receive class assignments. 

More interestingly, I would like to see the ability to create groups within my classes.  If I choose five students and put them in a "circle," for lack of a better term, they now can work on something that I have assigned to them, communicate via tablets, have a shared article that all of them can highlight and annotate (and they can see each other's highlights and annotations).  They will be able to interact in person, in my classroom, of course, but they can also interact when they are at home and stay easily within the bounds of the assignment.

From this point, it is only a step further to integrate the ability to record student voices and have those recordings available to me.  It would be easy for world language teachers to assign language-lab types of activities with that sort of arrangement.  Even if you are not a world language teacher, you could set up a circle of students and let them communicate in relative privacy via headsets. 

Final Ramblings

Overall, I am glad the textbook is getting an overhaul.  My only problem is I feel that it has been a very literal, close-minded overhaul.  I am fully aware that an approach like the one I suggest would require a completely new paradigm, a shift away from individual textbooks and toward a central informational source.  I envision this as a whole package, with a grading, testing, and quizzing system included.  I have so many more ideas concerning a project like this.

What I'd really like to see is your thoughts.  Comment below, and perhaps our collective wisdom can fall into the ear of someone who can make this a reality.  All of the required technology already exists.