Apple’s flirt with academia

The Apple Education Event that shook up the Big Apple last Thursday stirred up the usual hype that surrounds everything Apple does these days. “Apple reinvents the textbook” is a headline you can see frequently on the web. Yeah, maybe, but what are the immediate consequences for educators and students at universities and colleges? Unless your campus has gone fully iPad already, you don’t have to hold your breath. Apple’s event mainly focused on high-schools, and the few textbooks that are available right now are not for the university level. So while there is nothing going to change for you tomorrow, I believe Apple’s Education Event is an indication of changes to come in the next two to five years.

In this post, I am discussing the possible “fallout” of Apple’s Education Event. If you are interested in learning about Apple’s groundbreaking take on text annotations, or if you are interested in how Apple’s focus on education might help you to engage your students through peer-learning and customized textbooks, this post is for you.

In some way, Apple’s education event returns to a certain image that was shown during the announcement of the original iPad in January 2010: Steve Jobs under a street sign that showed the cross-road between Technology and Liberal Arts. I remember some comments that referred to this picture in their musings on how the iPad will transform the education sector. Now we can start musing again: How might Apple’s latest foray into the education sector, and the three apps Apple showcased on its education event, impact teaching and learning on the university level?

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad in 2010. Some commenters took this image as a hint towards the impact Apple and the iPad will have on the education sector.

Apple released three new (or updated) apps during last Thursday’s Education Event: iBooks 2 and iTunes U for the iPad, and iBooks Author for the Mac. All apps are free.


iBooks 2: Annotations are best in class

The most impressive announcements have to do with how the iPad opens the gate for a new breed of textbooks. The iBooks Store has now a new textbook section in which titles costs up to $15. Some publishers such as McGraw Hill and Pearson are already on board, but so far only with high-school titles. So we will have to wait and see how fast university-level texts will be made available through this channel.

To try out what such a new textbook can do, I recommend that you download the free Life on Earth from the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. In short, it is pretty amazing. You are greeted with a video message, and throughout the text you find interactive materials including animations, diagrams, photos, and videos. You can browse easily through the content of the book.

One of the strongest features is how annotations are handled in the new textbooks. You pretty much simply glide with your finger over the text, and BAM it is highlighted! No need to first select a single word, then drag the handles, and then tab on highlight. Also, changing the color or adding your own notes can be done instantly, and all your annotations and notes are made available to you in a special Notes View.

iBooks workflow for annotations is by far the best you can get right now, but unfortunately it only works in the new textbooks so far. I am hoping that a similar workflow will make its way to the normal books in iBooks, as well as to other apps such as Sente and Papers.

The new iBooks textbooks are far better than previous attempts to bring textbooks to the iPad (e.g.,CourseSmart), and students will be also allowed to keep their book after the term is done. However, what is really missing here, in my opinion, is a social reading feature. Right now, every student would read his or her book alone, as there is no in-app way to share annotations, have discussions, or ask a question to one’s peers.


iBooks Author: Co-create your own textbook

Hip instructors ditch the textbook in 2012 and teach their course without forcing their students to spend their party-money on soon outdated and partly irrelevant textbooks. Are we going to see a new trend next year? Don’t ditch it – ink it yourself!? With iBooks Author, you could in theory assemble your own customized textbook and make it available to your students via the iBookstore for $15 or less (not much less, obviously).

I played around a little with iBooks Author and can attest that it is indeed easy to use. You can easily dump your pre-written text into it and spice up the content with keynote presentations, images, and movies. It is truly amazing how easy you can create interactive content, for example dynamic images and review quizzes.


The most obvious limitation of course is that you probably don’t have enough self-written content lying around to become Academia’s Next Top Textbook Author. Also, there are  copyright and license/distribution issues to consider. This may change though in many different ways: One way is that established textbook publishers could offer you a database from which you custom-create your own textbook (and you can add your own content). Actually, this exists already, but iBooks Author could make it big. Another way would be a community a la wikipedia that creates the same database for textbooks under the creative commons license. Let’s face it, most of what students learn comes from wikipedia already, so it would be only consequential to expand this model.

And as a third and last idea, you could create and adapt a textbook over the years in collaboration with your students. Assignments could be delivered as a mini iBooks textbook, and the best content would make it into next year’s addition of the overall textbook. This would be an engaging way to learn for students, and it would push peer learning to a whole new level!


iTunes U: Not a Learning Management System

Last, iTunes U, which is around for a while, got its own iPad app. While the iPad app is only for viewing the content, you can create your own course through a web in the iTunes U Course Manager. Think of iTunes U as a course syllabus that you can put online and that allows your subscribers (formerly known as “students”) to access all the materials from a single place. However, iTunes U is not a learning management system, as some commenters claim, because you cannot assign grades to your students or host a discussion.


It is the ecosystem, stupid!

When I say “MP3 Player”, you probably think “iPod”. Why is that? Why has the iPod become the archetype of its category? One of the biggest factors of the iPod’s success was the integration into an ecosystem, first with iTunes and later with the iTunes Music store. Could it be that the current move into education will be one of the long-term success factors of the iPad? Remember, in all countries Apple has retail stores in, every single one of their customers of the age of 18 and under is inside the education system. And many of them will stay in the education system until their mid-twenties.


But what does it all mean for higher education?

To return to my opening statement of how this week’s Education Event picked up the ball from the unveiling of the original iPad in 2010, I believe that it will provide an immense stimulus for the higher education sector that has the potential to make teaching and learning more dynamic, more interactive, more customized, more up-to-date, more social, and more democratic.

However, this is only the first step, and many more are needed. From Apple, I wish that social readings features are added to iBooks, and that it drops its stone-walling approach and makes the system more open. For example, why not having iBooks Author also playing nice with PC’s (iTunes, anyone?), and why can’t textbook authors sell their books over third-party channels such as Amazon and their Fire tablet? From other companies in the education sector, I am interested to see how quickly they will adopt the new textbook format. Many big publishers are already on board, but so far only with high-school textbooks. Since university textbooks are typically purchased by students (while from what I gather high-school textbooks are typically bought by the schools), the incentives are different for publishers when it comes to Higher Ed.

Regarding Apple’s new take on annotations in iBooks, I hope that developers who are in the business of annotating PDFs (iAnnotate, Sente, Papers, Goodreader, and so on) take a close look and implement a similar workflow in their own respective apps.

“Apple’s move into the education sector has the potential to make teaching and learning more dynamic, more interactive, more customized, more up-to-date, more social, and more democratic.”

In conclusion, I don’t think that we will see huge changes in the next academic year. However, Apple positioned itself well in the education industry through this event, and a bump in screen resolution in their next generation iPad (which seems all too likely by now) will further cement their leading position in academia.

It seems like things are looking good for my little blog…

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  1. Lisa Townsend says:

    I’m really enjoying this blog. I’ve not made the switch yet, but am hoping to do so in the next few months, so was interested to see your perspective on Apple products and academia. I agree with you about the massive teaching/learning potential of iBooks – but with one huge caveat. As soon as I see anything claiming to incorporate video/audio into books of any kind, my heart sinks. I’m deaf. As soon as this happens, those special features become inaccessible. If multimedia is going to be used for textbooks, publishers need to think about people with special needs, in much the same way that many ebooks are increasingly automatically available with audio. However, that issue might already be covered; as these textbooks are initially aimed at schools, I imagine disability legislation will take care of that component, but still…!

    • Jo says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for sharing your ideas on accessibility. I admit, I never thought about this before, but you are 100% right!

      In general, I am excited about all these multimedia features because people learn differently. I myself need to see text, some audio won’t do it for me. But others prefer audio over text, and yet others are constrained in their options.

      I think the key word would be “user adaptability” here: Let students decide for themselves what format works for them. This means you have to offer all media features at the same spot, but there are no technical limitations of not doing it. The first publisher who figures this out, together with peer-to-peer learning and individualized syllabus support, is going to be the winner in my opinion.

      Good luck with your switch. I am sure you are in the know enough to not do any moves before March 7 😉

  2. Colleen P. Kirk says:

    Interesting blog. Good luck!

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