Textbook revolution?

January 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Posted in waffle | Leave a comment
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It is less than 24 hours since Apple announced the iBook amidst a flurry of hype and comment, and a multitude of blogs and posts to the ALT mailing list have already dissected, analysed and speculated about ‘what it all means’. Is it already too late to add anything new to what has already been said? Probably… but no self-respecting TEL blog can let the event pass without comment. If you are bored with the whole topic already, why not take a look at the ‘excavated book’ artwork of Brian Dettmer instead…

At one level, iBooks are like the multimedia CD-ROMs that so much effort (including mine) was spent on in the 80’s and early 90’s. These combined text, images, animations and quizzes, all hyperlinked together to create an engaging self-study resource. Remember Microsoft Encarta? Where are they now? Steam-rollered by the web.

But surely the iBooks Author programme will enable anyone to publish a rich learning experience? I’m sure that most tutors could use it to lay out text and photos – but do they have the skills needed to create good diagrams, let alone animations or interactives? Looking at their PowerPoint slides, I would say the answer is no. Creating really good iBooks will take a team of people – like those used by the publishers of the first examples. Of course there will also be some extraordinary work produced by talented obsessives… but there will also be an avalanche of utterly mediocre content – like most of the self-published e-books for Kindle.

Then there is the technology lock-in: iBooks can only be read on iPads, so every student on a course will have to have one. Sorry, no Android owners allowed in this club. Are the iPads provided by the institution, and if so how does the institution manage them? Or should the students own them and be responsible for installing apps, iBooks etc? My own view is that these are personal devices and that students will take much greater care if they own them.

That brings us neatly on to the risk of theft. iPads are expensive, desirable and compact – the ideal combination for any aspiring thief. Even if the rumoured £299 iPad is available, that is still a lot of money for an debt-laden student to find. On the other hand, they wander round with expensive phones all the time, so maybe this isn’t really an issue.

The most damning posts have pointed out that students use real textbooks in ways that are not currently supported by iBooks or any other e-book formats. They need to be able to flip quickly from one marked section to another, to jot down extensive notes and (especially) to compare two or more sources side by side. However, I’m sure that apps will quickly evolve to solve all these issues and make e-books even better for academic study than printed books.

For me, though, the main thing wrong with iBooks is that they represent old-style learning – the individual student working their way through the definitive textbook, be it ever so shiny. The textbook publishing industry is under threat, but not by Apple and its iBooks, but by the wealth and plurality of information now freely available on the web, and the social networks that link learners. I think that in the near future  every HE student will use a tablet as the hub of their study – for taking notes, reading and communciation – but I doubt that iBooks will feature heavily.

 

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