Four Hot Tips for iBook Authors

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Four Hot Tips for Future iBook Authors

Apple Computer products have long been fixtures in classrooms around the country, but usually as friendly, click-and-point add-ons to more rigorous learning content as opposed to core classroom content. The good news is that, after weeks of anticipation, the technology giant Apple finally announced that it will aggressively pursue the education-textbook publishing market. The bad news is that Apple will aggressively pursue the education-textbook market focused on its own devices and (surprise) profits.

The new iBooks Author app allows anyone — me, you, your neighbor, your barber (heck, even Bill Gates) — to easily create and distribute digital textbooks on Apple platforms using the free iBook Authors app. While the ability for mobile learning is promising — students could, for instance, visit a historic building and watch the structure evolve over time thanks to customized iBooks content — the limitations of the platforms are disappointing. Apple could’ve launched a truly game-changing technology, but instead they have transferred book-based content and learning practices — Flash cards? Highlighting? — to digital form. As someone who keeps a keen eye on the nexus of education and technology [gah! Self aggrandizing! Catholic girl breaks out in a rash!], here I offer four suggestions for iBooks Authors, v2.0:

  • iBooks has no way to easily integrate learning collaborations:Although no one knows what the future will look like for today’s students, I am willing to wager a few sheckles that, upon graduation, most students will hold positions in fields that involve working with other people. Students would do well to master collaborative as well as independent work and to understand the intricacies of remote collaborations, such as collectively working on a single document or conducting an online meeting. Remote collaborations also hold particular promise for learning: imagine students from Beijing sharing data with students from Boston on local traffic conditions or ocean temperatures, or debating teams from London debating with their peers in Livingston, NJ on whether the revolt of the colonies in 1776 turned out for the best.
  • iBooks encourages educators to plug in graphics, but doesn’t allow students to create them, or edit existing visual content: iBooks can support impressive 3D models, photo galleries and interactive charts, but students cannot build their own versions without leaving the iBooks Author app and using a third-party program. Students learn best by reading and doing: not embedding this ability to produce visual materials into the architecture of the app is a missed opportunity for both students and their teachers.
  • iBooks implicitly discourages web access:The iBooks interface buries the link for embedding HTML code behind the “widgets” button, suggesting that the designers considered HTML access was less important than the ability to insert triangles and ellipses. If learning activities are not particularly interesting or engaging, students will surely wander off task and start madly gambling online and checking their Facebook walls — just like they do in class now. It’s a shame to discount the vast possibilities of the Internet for learning.
  • iBooks Authors may not play well with learning management systems: When I describe iBooks Authors to educators, they invariably say, “Sounds great! How does it integrate with Moodle?”, Moodle being one of a handful of programs school districts rely on to keep track of course assessments, distribute homework assignments, send announcements to the class, and handle a host of administrative chores. Without Moodle or Blackboard integration, iBooks Authors misses a valuable opportunity for broad adoption and classroom integration.

In short, I would like future iBook textbooks to be less traditionally book-like and encourage the student as a producer, not just a consumer, of knowledge. An iBook text could be a truly 21st century learning facilitator that encourages agency, collaboration, creation and critical online skills.

Or, it could be just a book.