NEW YORK — Engagement is a big word in education. It combines both objective participation and subjective emotion. It’s one of the few psychological terms in education that links students, teachers and content. So it’s not surprising that in promoting the iPad as a tool for edcuation, Apple touted the device’s ability to engage students.
Because they’re so engaging: okay, let’s just drop the bull and say it, because they’re cool — Apple sells a lot of iPads for education. At Thursday’s event, Apple’s Phil Schiller said that 1.5 million iPads were in use in education settings, leveraging more than 20,000 education applications. Today, Apple’s giving away brand-new tools that ensures the company will be able to sell many, many more.
iBooks 2: Reinventing the textbook
Apple’s first announcement is an update to its primary reading application for iOS: iBooks 2 is available in the App Store for iPhone or iPad today. (Disappointingly, there’s no move to make a desktop client for Mac or Windows.)
A few of the new textbooks’ features are standard fare when it comes to electronic books. For instance, it’s easy to highlight and annotate text just by swiping, or tap words to define them.
Obviously, the iPad’s primarily differentiator from an e-reader is going to be its ability to display full-color, interactive, multimedia content: not just audio and video, but also three-dimensional diagrams that can be touched, rotated, explored.
iBooks 2 adds familiar iOS gestures to interacting with these textbooks: not just tapping to select or pinch-and-spread to zoom, but also rotation to switch between text and multimedia — exactly the same way you would switch between list view and cover flow browsing music on an iOS device.
It also adds a few new views of its own: for instance, turning notes, highlights and annotations into a series of browsable index cards.
iBooks Author: Keynote’s bookish cousin
Other than these alternate views, the new iBooks are through-designed: authors define and lay out their own text and graphics. iBooks offers more authorial/editorial control than we’ve seen in any competing e-book platform.
The books are created in iBooks Author, a free application for Mac. (No app for Windows. Sorry! Apple’s still got to sell some desktops, too.)
Even though it was tipped as a “GarageBand for e-books,” a better analogy might be a “KeyNote for e-books,” or “Pages on steroids.” It’s much closer in interface and philosophy to the template-based text-and-information apps of the iWork suite than it is to the media-driven apps of iLife. It’s not a remix machine as much as it is a layout and presentation engine.
From there, there are two important buttons at the top. One lets you preview the book on an iPad; the other publishes it to the iBookstore.
Textbooks in the iBookstore
Once an authored e-textbook is in the iBookstore, it’s got some tough company. Textbook giants Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are all offering books there too, in a brand-new Textbooks section of the store.
Have you heard of the Big Six trade presses? In education, these are the Big Three.
For high school textbooks, these presses are committing to sell books at a remarkable $ 14.99 or less, which gets students access to continued updates to each digital edition. (It looks like bulk and institutional purchases are off the table, at least for now.)
Most of these presses are also involved in other e-textbook initiatives, including Inkling, in which Pearson and McGraw-Hill are both investors. But there are also a few iBooks exclusives, such as Life on Earth from the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, and four new illustrated reference books by DK Publishing, an imprint within Pearson’s Penguin Group. (Bring on the Lego Star Wars books! — sadly not among the new books announced.)
So that’s students, authors and publishers. What about those other people in education? You know, the ones who stand at the front of the room and still smell like chalk?
Reinventing the virtual classroom with iTunes U
Up until now, iTunes U has basically been a special education podcast section in iTunes, mostly geared towards higher ed. It’s a mic feed or camera over the shoulder in a lecture hall — which really only covers the most basic way information is conveyed in a proper classroom.
Now, iTunes U — still free — has become something much closer to a full-fledged learning management app for iOS. Teachers can post materials from syllabi to assignments, blog entries and updates, and everything else they need in order to communicate with students — on top of incorporating iBooks 2 and iTunes U audio/video content.
It’s not entirely clear to me that the new and improved iTunes U can become a wholesale replacement to current widely-used learning management systems like the much-reviled Blackboard. I don’t know whether it meets some of the specialized security requirements for handling assignment submissions, grading, and so forth. But it is a powerful new tool for open education. And it’s exciting to see a company that actually knows how to build software a person would want to use. Finally, Apple’s lined up a slew of university partners who are willing to give it a shot. So who knows?
Also, in line with the K-12 focus of today’s announcement, “iTunes U” is now also open to K-12 teachers and their students. The old joke about getting your kids ready to go to university when they start preschool has new meaning.
Summary: Apple’s publishing crabwalk
If you’re disappointed that Apple didn’t take something closer to a direct shot at either Amazon or the education industry establishment, don’t be. This has the potential to disrupt both — just elliptically.
Pardon the pun, but it’s a textbook Apple move. It leverages the company’s ability to create excellent desktop software (making the continued absence of an iBooks app for Mac or Windows now utterly perplexing, if not near-criminal) and team up with media partners.
It’s also a textbook Apple game-changer — in an almost literal sense of shifting the field of play. Amazon has far too much of a lead on Apple in distributing electronic versions of trade press and self-published books for iBooks to tackle them directly. Make that the metric and Apple can only lose.
Shift the focus to the education market — which by revenue actually far outstrips trade books — and Apple now can compete with startups like Inkling, Kno and Chegg on much more favorable terms.
Meanwhile, iBooks Author is the trojan horse. There really aren’t many easy-to-use e-book authoring apps, even for plain-text books for Kindle or Nook. And none of easy-to-use applications have been free.
Now both individual authors and trade and textbook presses can be drawn into a development and publishing ecosystem that begins and ends with Apple. Amazon may offer more eyeballs, but Apple offers an easier workflow. And the multimedia enhancements baked into the new iBooks will tempt everyone creating an e-book to add bits that will be specific to Apple’s platform — creating accidental exclusives.
It’s not just about engaging students. It’s about engaging everyone in the education and publishing industries. If Apple can win their hearts and minds, it will win their business, too: Macs, iPads and iBooks.