Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Apple iPad textbooks

So as expected, Apple announced their new textbooks for the iPad. Looking over the specs and what is possible to create with the iPad, it doesn’t look like they’ve offered a complete set of features for their book, but buried in their authoring features is the ability to embed HTML widgets into pages. There are some things I’d like to see improved about their digital textbook, but most schools will find the fact that they can subscribe to multiple textbook publishing companies through the same system pretty attractive.

Some flaws I spotted:

  • The textbook does not seem to build in the ability to translate or look up definitions of words.
  • No discussion on the adjusting the readability (in terms of word choice and reading level) of the texts.
  • No discussion on interacting with other users of the textbook, either through comments, or even sharing anotations. It might be possible to share annotations, but can you share books? Can you deep link to a portion of a textbook to share a thought with someone else?
  • The interactivity they have included seems somewhat limited to pseudointeractivity. Being able to manipulate an image and move it around is not as big a deal (in terms of effect on student learning) as they seem to be making it out to be. You may be able to build in games and simulations, but you’ll have to build them yourself as HTML 5 widgets. I’d like to see a textbook which includes the ability to graph data, manipulate it, and run simulations within the text itself.
  • The textbooks will be in a proprietary format which can only be created on a Mac. This means that it will be sometime before authoring tools come out for other OS, and then getting your textbook onto the iPad via those authoring tools looks very much like it will have to go through the iTunes store. Good luck trying to get a book that doesn’t meet the somewhat stringent requirements of the iTunes store into the app. I can imagine that courses on human sexuality and gender may find themselves using paper textbooks for some time to come, for example.
  • A typical complaint with traditional mathematics textbooks is that the examples given earlier in the textbook are then replicated in the exercises the students do, and the exercise becomes not about doing mathematics, but about recognizing (and memorizing the solution to) problem types. I don’t see any evidence that this will be fixed with the new textbook, especially given the companies with whom they’ve partnered. Maybe because the technology is improved, the pedagogy will improve? I’m not sure…
  • One of the comments from the video advertising the new iPad textbooks said that students wouldn’t even have to think about what information they’ve bookmarked or annotated in the textbook. Doesn’t this seem somewhat problematic, given that a purpose of education is to get students to think?

I don’t disagree with digital textbooks per say. For schools that can afford this option, they do have a lot of benefits. I just think we should continue to ask ourselves, how can we improve the textbook? It’s been fundamentally the same for so long, and I don’t see a huge benefit in spending extra money for the reading device for a textbook (aside from reduced weight in students’ backpacks) if we can’t also fix some of the pedagogical problems in traditional textbooks.

Update: An important observation for Canadian markets – the Apple digital textbooks are not yet licensed for use in Canada, and the software to manage distribution locally of the textbooks is not yet available here.