Friday, 4 May 2012

Has Apple reinvented the textbook?

   "The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed" 
   William Gibson

Is the release of iBooks Author and a growing range of commercial textbooks available on iBooks part of a transformation of Education or is it just a step along the road to a digital education revolution?
In ‘new learning’ classrooms, teachers have embraced technology, have questioned the norms of teacher-student interaction and source content that suits need from multiple resources. The trend is to use technology to free student learning from narrow views of what Education is about and to free teachers where possible from some of the marking, progress reporting and assessment so that they can spend more time facilitating learning. Here are a few things that technology can be used to improve:

1. Instructional content
Content is what traditional print textbooks deliver – and in most cases deliver well. Content is generally written by teachers and experts for a specific year level in a curriculum. The idea is to provide access to all the knowledge necessary to take the examinations that the curriculum was written to address. This plays to the one-size-fits-all style of Education – where all students learn the same things, from the same source, at the same pace and at the same time. Not all students learn this way, meaning some are under-extended and prone to boredom and others get left behind.
Great teaching has always involved content beyond the textbook. Technology has increased the variety of sources that can be brought into the classroom and made access instant and paperless. Great teachers would always use multiple resources, but the introduction of technology into the classroom has perhaps increased the pressure on all teachers to add variety to their lessons.

2. Learning varieties
Students do not learn the same things at the same time, for the same reasons and at the same pace. Even if a textbook provides access to all the knowledge required to meet curriculum requirements, it is done in a linear fashion, starting from the front of the book and building knowledge on top of knowledge until we reach the end of the book.
Digital resources allow multiple access points to modular content allowing students to learn in visual, aural and kinesthetic ways at speeds that suit them. Content is linked across year levels allowing students to revise necessary content as needed either at the teacher’s direction or independently. Brighter students can skip repetitive practice of concepts they have already grasped and move on to more challenging material. Learning can be personalized, varied and most importantly, fun.

3. Interactivity
Since modern schooling was introduced during the industrial revolution – for those industrializing countries anyway – classroom interaction has evolved from a ‘lockstep’ teacher to student interaction to include student–student interaction, group work, and more. Technology has helped broaden the interaction available through social networks, interactive widgets that allow student-computer interaction, and teacher-student feedback (in both directions) via Learning Management Systems.

4. Diagnostics and progress reporting
Increasingly, technology specifically designed for schools includes tools for diagnosing what a student is already capable of and what she needs to learn. In a traditional school a student is expected to learn year 7 content in year 7. When the year ends, a line is drawn and the student moves to year 8, perhaps with a new teacher, a new textbook or new classmates. For a teacher with a curriculum to get through, it is difficult to devote time helping those that didn’t learn a portion of what they were supposed to in year 7. And so those left behind fall further behind.
Included in some digital resources these days are ways of checking which students have understood and can apply what lessons. Testing and marking students’ understanding of a concept is automated so that teachers can get instant feedback on how each student is doing, where they are in their learning, what remedial work is needed and have the option of using this data to produce individual and class progress reports for department heads, parent reports or to give feedback to students.

5. Assessment
Regardless of how we might feel about standardized testing, we live in a results oriented world. Teachers are expected to prepare students for examinations, testing what they have learned and practicing test-taking conditions and techniques. Some traditional textbooks come with practice exams or additional testing resources.

Some digital resources offer test generating facilities that teachers can use to create practice tests and timed conditions. Tests can be customized with ease to focus on specific areas needing practice for whole classes, groups and even individuals.

So how does Apple’s ‘reinvented textbook’ stand up to what is already being done by Edtech companies and progressive schools?

From what I’ve seen so far the presentation of content is an enhancement of traditional print textbooks, but is hardly new. Many publishers already produce enhanced or interactive versions of their print textbooks, including video, drag and drop and multiple choice exercises, slide shows, highlighting and bookmarking functions. What Apple have created is a new channel for such content, albeit one that needs that content to be reformatted to Apple’s proprietary systems.

The textbooks available so far via iBooks are essentially enhanced versions of flat print textbooks. They are linear rather than modular and revision of a prior year’s content would require a further purchase and download. They are visually more exciting than a print book but do not offer personalized learning or social networking but, by incorporating weblinks, can offer extension of content beyond the textbook.

iBooks Author allows users to create custom content. Experimenting with content creation leads to the discovery that photos and pictures are best loaded from iPhoto, which no longer comes packaged with the latest version of Mac OS X. Widgets can be created and loaded via Keynote, also Apple software for Mac. Thus despite iBooks Author being a free download, effective use is best achieved through the purchase of both iLife and iWork software packages, and of course a Mac. This is not a criticism. Apple is a commercial company that has to deliver profit to satisfy its shareholders. They are attempting to capture a share of the Education market, to generate a profit, by highlighting some (but not all) of the inadequacies of the traditional print textbook. This is akin to what booksellers have been doing for years – aggregating content from publishers and delivering it to schools, often along with pencils, notebooks, art supplies, etc.

Unlike some of the digital resources available to schools, resources available though iBooks are not linked to Learning Management Systems and cannot deliver class or individual reports of progress or customizable, automated tests with results. Interactivity is limited to student with textbook and the amount of interactivity that can be included will be limited, at least in the early days, by the sheer size of the download required and iPad memory needed to store the iBooks. Teachers should investigate just how much memory will be required to house all the textbooks needed for a school year and check whether the iPads available at their schools have sufficient memory for all the students’ needs and still run other apps that make the iPad such a wonderful tool.
No doubt textbooks delivered on iPads via iBooks will have many, many fans. Teachers who have shied away from introducing technology in the classroom, perhaps from fear of being less competent with technology than their students, may find the switch from textbook to iBook an easier and less challenging transition. But will iBooks attract those schools that have embraced technology in the classroom and have moved to resources beyond the textbook, giving up some of the gains they have made? I seriously doubt it. And has Apple ‘reinvented the textbook’? I don’t think so. But for many schools they may offer a step towards better and more efficient use of technology in classrooms. And schools must decide whether they mind having their technological future being tied to Apple.

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