Monday, February 13, 2012

Why iBooks Might Not Be Such A Great Deal Regarding Textbooks

Here's why, according to one person:
Apple recently unveiled its digital book-authoring program, iBooks Author, and I’m scared.

The last three years that I have dedicated to pursuing my Ph.D. in instructional design & technology, which centers on interactive digital text, have given me a new perspective on the delicate balance that is necessary for classroom technologies to be productive and fruitful rather than novel and superficial. The seemingly endless hours that I have spent reading journal articles, writing papers, reading book chapters, taking in lectures, reading conference proceedings, and reading some more, have left me feeling as though I have earned some sort of badge that licenses me to make qualified observations about new educational technologies.

But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.

I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!

Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim? This is my point. We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.
Could he have stumbled upon a better example? I think not.

There are plenty of people who are capable of writing textbooks--in fact, a physics teacher at my school has done much work in this arena. And he's even an Apple fanboy, so iBooks should be right up his alley! The concern, though, is that he would be the exception, not the rule, if every Joe with a computer were to start writing textbooks. It should be incumbent on the the author-to-be to demonstrate competence, not on others to demonstrate why the author might not be competent.


Dean Baird said...

Who are you and what have you done to the free-enterpriser who runs this blog?

Am I missing your point? Because it sounds like you're crying an alarmist warning from fear that powerful publication tools will be given to the unwashed masses. And that the invisible hand of the market is powerless to stop said proletariate from creating and distributing subpar publications.

What part of this is new?

I started authoring materials when I began teaching. Apple in 1986 put powerful publication tools in my hands. And I produced curriculum whose slickness and polish rivaled what was available from textbooks. And in doing so, liberated me from the tyranny of the textbook.

Some people used those tools to produce crap. Is that the fault of the tools?

I produce compelling and engaging "PowerPoints" (by using Apple's Keynote instead of MS PowerPoint); students rate their utility higher than nearly any other form of content delivery in my class. Many people produce PowerPointlessness. Is that PowerPoint's fault?

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the tools Apple (or anyone else) gives us, but in ourselves. If an author uses iBooks Author to create crap, that's really not iBooks Author's fault. To put it another way, guns don't kill people; people kill people.

For as long as I've been the Apple fanboy you describe me as, I've listened to Apple haters decry the fact that Apple makes complex computer applications simple enough for the non-technophile to access. The complaint was always that "ordinary people" couldn't be trusted with that kind of computer power. They didn't earn access to such power (via soldering iron or coding skills), so they wouldn't appreciate what they'd been given and would surely misuse it. Somehow.

And yet the sky remains aloft. Your fears are without foundation.

But let's envision your nightmare scenario: every Joe with a computer is iBooks Authoring away and posting iBook textbooks hither and yon. And the authors summarily reject your demand that they "demonstrate competence." What then? Will the market unwittingly march into the jaws of bad curriculum?

And if they do, is that Apple's fault? (Remember that there are those who think blogs are terrible in and of themselves because Op/Ed material should be left to responsible professionals properly trained in journalism.)

It is always the job of the adopter—not the author—of curriculum to vet the curriculum materials for quality. That neither starts nor ends with any tools Apple might set into the marketplace.

Darren said...

Careful, Dean, you'll get your panties in such a bunch that blood flow will be cut off.

I'm not saying that no one should be allowed to have such tools--why would you go hyperbolic and attribute such a belief to me? I'm saying, and so is the author, that this tool isn't the end-all, be-all of education as some are making it out to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

Do you get upset because it's an Apple product and I didn't heap praise, hosannas, and braided flowers on it? Because *that*, I believe, is your motivation.

Dean Baird said...

Apple somehow muddles through with or without your support. Absolutely NO fears there. Undies: unbunched.

But don't go ad hominem on me, Darren. Which part of what I said do you disagree with?

To shorten things up...

You: It should be incumbent on the the author-to-be to demonstrate competence, not on others to demonstrate why the author might not be competent.

Me: Since when?

You can hate Apple all you like. It's a large nation. But you wandered off the reservation with your editorial comment.

Anonymous said...

"But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary ... I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them."

I could make a very similar argument about blogs and newspapers: You don't need to be qualified to write a blog. Anyone can design and develop one. No experience necessary.

In fact, Andrew Keen has written an entire book, "The Cult of the Amateur", decrying the loss of money and influence by the traditional, established experts (e.g. iTunes vs. record stores, Craig's list vs. newspaper want ads). He doesn't like the fact that people are less willing to let major news outlets like the New York Times set the agenda for what is considered newsworthy.

This concern about Apple's book authoring tool seems very much in the same vein: "Oh, no, now people can do X without the proper oversight by those who know better."

I just can't get all that worried. It isn't like most students select their own textbooks. If we trust the people who select the textbooks (today) to make a reasonable choice, then more options shouldn't hurt. If we *don't* trust those folks to make a reasonable choice, then we have a much larger problem.

-Mark Roulo

Darren said...

Dean, you have the wonderful ability to misunderstand, whether intentionally or not, anything I type when Apple is discussed.

This post has nothing to do with whether or not iBooks Author is good software, any more than it has to do with whether or not PowerPoint is good software. This post has everything to do with whether or not textbooks published using that software will be any good when any Tom, Dick, and Harry will be able to publish something they call "textbooks".

Saint Steven is still safe, Peace Be Unto Him.

Darren said...

Mark, I believe the concern (at least it is with me!) that textbook adopters will have to wade through more crap in order to find the good stuff. If you're looking for a newspaper, you're not going to confuse a blog with a newspaper....

Dean Baird said...

From where I'm reading, the misunderstanding is at your end (imagine that). You read my comments through a pro/anti-Apple filter. Some of what I said gets caught in that filter because you *were* faulting a specific piece of Apple software. So my blowback was in-bounds.

But for some reason, you are electing to ignore all my other points, especially those which challenge your thesis here.

So setting Apple aside. Completely:

You: "This post has everything to do with whether or not textbooks published using that software will be any good when any Tom, Dick, and Harry will be able to publish something they call "textbooks". "

My Apple-free prebuttal addressing what this post has everything to do with: "It is always the job of the adopter—not the author—of curriculum to vet the curriculum materials for quality."

If voluminous production of garbage results from the use of the software, so what?

Our job as educators is to evaluate curriculum materials. We are charged with stripping the noise from the signal. Garbage has always been and always will be. Its existence doesn't change what we do.

If professional instructors aren't able to make such evaluations, then we face a problem very different in nature. And the existence of authoring software would be the least of our problems.

As a more practical point, there won't even *be* more crap to wade through!

The major publishing houses are on board with iBooks. They'll be the ones offering the electronic textbooks for adoption. You'll have offerings from Pearson, Houghton-Mifflin, Harcourt Brace, and all other usual suspects.

Joe Schmo has been able to staple together a "textbook" since moveable type, but was in no danger of having it adopted by a school district. Textbook authoring software "for the rest of us" won't change that.

So breathe easy: the menace you perceive is truly phantom.

Darren said...

You alter what I say so that it makes an easy straw man for you to tear down. It's not very enjoyable to play that way, have a nice evening.

Dean Baird said...

Honestly Darren, what part of quoting you verbatim qualifies as altering what you say?

The weakness was in your thesis. You're running an opinion blog here, so you can't be offended hen your opinions are challenged. There's really no need to entrench so deeply in items as trivial as this that it becomes a hill worth dying on.

For my part, I remain open to being wrong on many things because I am of aware of my own great capacity for error. I'm at ease with being wrong because I know there's always something to be learned in the process.

The biggest lesson? The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. You need not buy that one (now or ever). But don't live at the other extreme wherein every loosely held opinion merits ossification into immutable permanence. There's a broad spectrum between the extremes, and it's OK to wander it as needed.

Darren said...

It's your strange interpretation of what I wrote that is the problem. Thanks for playing.

Doug Simpkinson said...'s_Law:

"I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms."

I would be willing to bet a large fraction of textbooks put out by reputable publishing companies are crap.

PeggyU said...

I usually agree with you, but I'm not seeing the danger here. You can't tell me you've never had a text that wasn't out-and-out crap. I'm not sure that the quality of what is published will suffer noticeably.

For example, our daughter's calculus text was written by a committee of contributors. The notation wasn't even consistent from chapter to chapter! Our son's astronomy book is interesting ... ever seen a book that stashed the index in a hidden location about midway through, rather than at the back? Whose bright idea was that? For the longest time, we thought they had left off the index!

On a related note, is any book in the Connected Mathematics series a "good" text?

Darren said...

I think you're reading too much into this. What *I* got out of it was that the choruses that hail iBook Author as the silver bullet to fix education are wrong--just as were the choruses about Powerpoint, about DVD players, about VCR players, and about movie projectors (that was Edison!).

Dean Baird said...

No one is hailing iBooks Author as a silver bullet to fix education. (Hey, I thought *I* was in charge of straw man argument fabrication here!)

Apple's going to portray their software as being pretty special, but that's kind of what companies do with marketing and advertising.

In the grander scheme, Apple is doing its part toward moving textbooks from static, analog, paperbound doorstops to interactive, animated, updateable, digital documents. All four years of high school textbooks and more in an iPad.

That's all going to happen. You are well within your rights to object, and bemoan "something lost" (the heft of a book, the smell of the paper, etc.). Paper textbooks are on a final death march to permanent obsolescence. Doubters are free to scoff. But the scoffiest of scoffs won't help them buy a CD over at Tower Records.

Apple's iBooks Author lets the big publishing houses make the move. But Apple didn't want to limit access to the software to big-name publishers. So they put it out for anyone to download and use. Free of charge.

Darren said...

I've read such claims, Dean. They're not the fault of Apple--but your knee-jerk defense at even imaginary attacks on Apple is as predictable as it is telling.

Darren said...

Dean, I decided to delete that comment because I'm not going to allow you to taunt me into chasing *your* demons for you. I have no desire to grab that tar-baby.

You saw my post that mentioned an Apple product, took immediate offense because I didn't offer incense to St. Stephen, and went into full-on red-alert-raise-shields mode. When I explained that your interpretation of my thesis was entirely wrong, you just changed targets, and you want *me* to jump through *your* hoops. That just isn't going to happen, and I'm done giving you a venue for *insisting* that I do so.

Dean Baird said...

Backing up a fact-based claim is hardly a difficult hoop to jump through. Backing up a fiction-based claim is nearly impossible.

I'll accept your deletion of my comment as acknowledgment of your tendency to conflate molehills into mountains.

I guess you feel a need to bring drama to the blog. Even if the drama does not exist in reality. Fair enough, I suppose. But it colors the blog as a work that wanders not only into the world of opinion but fiction as well.

Darren said...

While I have no doubt that you acknowledge it the way you do, my intent was for you to acknowledge that I, not you, determine the discussion topics here, and I'm not going to run around chasing your "prove this, now prove this, then prove that" mentality. You know the old tale about why one shouldn't wrestle with a pig? That analogy is apt here, and I'm not interested in getting muddy.

Your statement above is yet another example of your wild misinterpretations of what I write, misinterpretations that I can only assume are intentional to get me to chase my tail. I'm not really interested in doing that.

Ellen K said...

My concern regarding ebooks is who has the control of editing. Would we really understand the gist of Brave New World or 1984 if critical elements that might be contrary to the will of whoever is in charge? While we would have the advantage of immediacy in changing facts, we also would have the danger of editing facts to fit an agenda. I would also get into the idea that the consistent use of electronic media is creating a subliminal barrier as reading on electronic devices causes eyestrain. My fear is also that there are those in power who think devices can replace people in the education process.