I remember being a sophomore in high school and dreaming of gorgeous interactive textbooks that existed in a tablet computer that I could carry from class to class. Or massive digital whiteboards that could be jotted on and saved for reference later. Did I believe these would actually help my education? Only slightly. I knew that even if those tools existed, they would be prohibitively expensive. Today, Apple didn’t show off large digital whiteboards, but they did show off textbooks that were gorgeous and interactive for tablet computers that can be carried from class to class. They’re also prohibitively expensive for most high school students I knew, which is the group they’re targeting now.
For me, textbooks were probably my favorite part of most classes. Information was laid out with great photographs, technical drawings, graphs, and generally great design. Often, I found myself reading ahead just to see what content lie next, which left me bored in class while we waited to get to that point. Apple with their new iBooks 2 app provides that new interactive experiences, flashy movies, and the incredible advantage of not being a physical book. Apple rattled these advantages off one after the other and announced that they had partnered with the largest players in the publishing space that cover 90% of the textbook content currently out there. For $14.99 (or less) a book on top of the price of even a first-generation iPad, you can acquire these next-generation learning experiences. All of this sounds like a great revenue stream for Apple, but how much is it actually helping kids learn? There are still far too many problems.
On Textbooks, iPads, and Education
The problem upfront is cost. While Apple supposes that your teenager (these books are targeted initially toward high schoolers) has an iPad, or at least wants one, acquiring one purely for academic purposes is going to be out of the question for most. While the books run just fine on original iPads, the cost is still prohibitively expensive compared to the $0 most people are expected to pay. What happens if the iPad is lost or destroyed, will there be some insurance policy? The books themselves will be $15 or less each, but it appears that until various policies are established at the school district level, these will probably also come out of the students’ (or rather, their parents’) pocket.
Once you’ve gotten over the cost, the next issue is the actual benefit. As a technophile, I hate physical paper in every format (even money!) so the idea of ditching a bunch of heavy books is a great idea to me. But that’s not a differentiating factor for me despite killing more than a few backpacks in middle school until dad handed me a military-issue duffle bag (and that issue went away quick). Kids need more physical exertion anyway, I don’t think carrying two or three books from a locker to a classroom is really so dreadful. I like the idea of zoomable pictures and videos and more interactive elements, but how much are these aspects really enhancing the experience? Only slightly, because they aren’t addressing a major issue: textbooks are silo-ed experiences.
One of the best learning tools I’ve had since middle school (since high school wasn’t all that educational, anyway) has been Wikipedia. Not only has it been a great resource for deep diving on various subjects, but the content streams to virtually any topic through inventive use of hyperlinks. Wikipedia’s presentation isn’t elaborate or flashy, but its easy use, mostly-consistent layout between articles, and organic learning experience which allow you to hop from topic to topic with ease consistently make it the tool I use to learn about something time and time again. It’s not even that there’s much information lost between a dedicated high school textbook and the online resource, it’s just that issues with editing, consistency, and verifiable info still exist with Wikipedia that they work very hard to correct.
Then there’s the issue that physical textbooks aren’t the issue with education. If you’re in a class where the textbook is the learning experience, then you’ve already failed to educate the child. It’s easy to see school districts spending millions of dollars getting iPads and iBooks into students hands, then watch as teachers consistently fail to create a learning environment. While I would’ve personally preferred an iBook to many of the teachers I had, this still doesn’t solve root issues. Education is fundamentally broken and even the flashiest of videos and most interactive of elements in our learning resources can’t fix this problem. And while it’s nice that Apple is more than happy to take your education dollars, they would continue to be complicit in the failure of our school system. They’d just be doing it all the way to the bank.