Start the iText Revolution With Me?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I remember being in graduate school when the Internet was first becoming popular and everyone was scrambling to port their content online. The problem was that most people were not taking advantage of the most unique ability of the Internet at that time, hyperlinking.  It took some time before people caught on to how different things could be online – eventually adding images, audio, video and social interaction. Apple’s announcement of iBooks2 and the free iBook Author app just did for e-books what it took ten years or more to happen to the Internet – and they did it in a 1-hour press conference at the Guggenheim. Here is how iBooks2 changes the textbook world forever.

iBooks2 Features
iBooks2 makes a huge leap in realizing the potential of the digital textbook. Prior to now, e-books and e-textbooks have been mainly based on the porting of traditional texts to a digital format. Essentially, the integrity of the traditional book was retained, only the medium in which it was accessed was changed (paper changed to digital). What iBooks2 does is introduce a whole new set of features that explode the notion of what a "text" is and can be. Here are a few of the key things that textbooks can now include:

  • Video
  • Audio
  • Animation
  • Interactive 3D graphics (zoom and rotate)
  • Interactive models (change variables to see how the model changes)
  • Hyperlinked glossary of terms with previews of words in context
  • Interactive quizzes to provide immediate feedback
  • Highlight and take notes within a digital text
  • Turn notes into study cards that can be flipped and shuffled
  • Full database integration allowing books to be searched at the word level

Two other features of the iBooks2 platform further change expectations of what textbooks can be. The first is the ability to switch your device from portrait to landscape mode and thus alter the way in which the book’s content is presented. This is easier to show than explain so please see the graphic below:

(Images from Life on Earth, 2012)

On the left of the screen is an image of the iBook when the iPad is held in portrait mode. It appears just like your traditional iBook – a basic text-based page. The two images on the right of the screen illustrate what happens if you turn your device to landscape mode. The page expands and the graphical elements are made more prominent. What appeared to be photos or illustrations in portrait mode take on new life as interactive elements in landscape mode. For example, selecting "The Crowded Cell" image pops it to full-screen and makes it an interactive model of the inner working of a cell.

Second, is the ability to update the information in the book for free anytime there is a new update. When talking about public education this could represent huge financial savings if there is a way to pass the book down through generations of students. More than likely, however, publishers will simply release updated books under new names in order to force schools to buy the new edition. At the college level, this points to the fact that digital textbooks cannot be "sold back" at the end of the semester. Instead, college students will now be able to keep that chemistry textbook forever with the assurance that the information in it will always(?) be up-to-date.

Partners and Pricing
The announcement of the iBooks2 platform included a listing of the textbook publisher who have signed on to provide iBooks2-enhanced titles: Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Harcourt are all beginning to turn out titles available in the new textbook section of the iBooks Shop.

As of the announcement time, there were eight titles available in the store – all keyed to high school students. In addition, Apple has begun working with DK Publishing (Dorling Kindersley) to create interactive iBooks for children. Four titles were available as of the time of this writing. I downloaded the sample of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Life and must say that my four-year-old son was quite impressed.

All seven of the textbooks currently available in the store were priced at $14.99. There was not an announcement of how pricing for schools would be dealt with – if individual students would be expected to purchase their own books, or what the entire price range for textbooks would be. The DK books ranged in price from $2.99-$14.99. There was, also a free sample of E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth available for download at the time of the announcement. This sample displayed all of the interactive capability mentioned previously.

iBooks Author App
As an instructional designer, the most exciting part of the iBooks2 announcement was the simultaneous release of the free iBooks Author application. This program allows anyone (with a Mac running iOS 10.6.6 or later) to create their own interactive texts. Making an iBook is now as simple as importing your Word documents into the system, applying an appropriate template, such as math or science book then dragging and dropping images, movies, or Keynote presentations onto the page where you want them. For those with programming skills, the app also contains the capability to incorporate custom written widgets created in Java or html5. iBooks Author also contains the tools necessary to create the interactive glossaries mentioned earlier. Here is a review of the program and a video tour of the software from the iDownload blog:

As much as iBooks2 should change the e-text world, the authoring app will change self-publishing and possibly the entire world of publishing as we know it. This will be both good and bad as there is likely to be a huge flood of self-published rubbish flooding our lives within the weeks and months to come. However, there will also be a remarkable proliferation of shared new ideas and knowledge as well as some books that are bound to be enjoyable to read.

Unanswered Questions
There were, however, probably more questions raised by these announcements than were answered. Here are a few that I though of while watching the unveiling:

  • Are there gatekeepers? Who decides what books make it to the Apple iBook Store? With it becoming so easy to create “bad books” there needs to be some way of filtering. There will be a rating system, just like the one used in the App Store, but there will still be a massive amount of content to wade through if this is as big as it seems it might be. That is in no way saying that I want Apple to censor which books get to be published. That defeats the whole point!
  • What about piracy? Pirating eBooks is already pretty easy. The Author app has the potential to make it much, much easier. This raises a second question: if you pirate a textbook and trick it out with videos, animations, etc., that it didn’t previously have, is that piracy?
  • When does the larger capacity iPad come out? This is a no-brainer given that the size of each iBook is approximately 1GB. That’s not a whole lot of texts on the basic 16GB iPad2.
  • Does this kill the publishing industry? If everyone can just crank out their own books, will we really need publishers? Tough to say right now, but this is probably another crippling blow to the already struggling publishing industry.
  • Will there be lower cost books with ads enabled for schools? In addition to this, will there be educational pricing or volume pricing available for schools?
  • Will there be Android, Kindle, and other e-reader compatibility?
  • How long before we see social media integration into texts?
  • What’s up with the EULA (End User License Agreement)? The language of the EULA for the iBook Author app restricts the distribution of any content created with the program to the iBooks2 platform. This is being called by ZDNet writer Ed Bott "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil" and akin to Microsoft trying to dictate what you can do with a document you create in Word. The wording of this agreement must change for so many reasons that I don’t have space to list them all.
  • What about poor kids and poor schools?

It is this last question, however, that I would like to focus on in closing. There is enormous potential for this product to revolutionize education – to make it more engaging, entertaining, and exciting. But there is also a great potential to further widen the digital divide. If the expectation is for individual students to purchase their own iPads and digital texts, there is a serious problem with this proposal. If it is expected that schools will be expected to purchase iPads for every student, this also is a substantial problem. While some schools already have the devices, there are many more that do not. This cannot simply be a marketing ploy by Apple to sell more devices and by textbook publishers to hit one more market. I will wait for the next big announcement before passing judgment. For the moment, I am optimistically skeptical about the altruistic motives behind these announcements in spite of the restrictions in the EULA..