Apple's iPad Textbook Initiative Doesn't Go Far Enough

Learning is an act of assembly. The iPad textbook initiative goes some way toward the assembly of content, but it remains artifact-centric. In other words, the world moves from revolving around a next book, to revolving around an e-textbook.

Here are the advantages I see to the current approach:

  • Easier to carry
  • Easier to update (in fact, the book may never become obsolete. Will be interesting to watch the licensing issues here. Is a "new edition" just an update, or do you, as happens with traditional publishing, need to shell out for the update.
  • More interactive and engaging, filled with video, sound, animations and models
  • Easy to access, no bookstore lines
  • Integrated highlighting and note taking
  • Study card generation (traditional, but not always the best way to study)
  • Self-publishing
  • iTunes University integration

These advantages are a step forward from textbooks on paper, or even on an Amazon Kindle, but there is still work to be done.

Here's what's missing:

Lecture notes integration: if the educator self-publishes, which is certainly possible given the platform, then he or she can easily integrate lecture notes into the text. If, however, they use a third-party book, then those notes will live outside of the text in the same way that student-taken notes recording during a lecture will remain outside of the text.

Student notes integration: The format does not lend itself to note taking during a lecture. Suppose I mindmap, or I use a Livescribe Smartpen to capture notes. Those artifacts remain separate, which means that during reading, I have to refer to material outside of the text. It also means that if I don't take notes inside of the text using the method available through the book, that those notes remain separate and have no means for creating a context back to the book, in either direction. I can't just rip out a page, or it appears, copy the text (though I could screen capture it) in order to create a reference to an image, model or paragraph in some other app (this implies, at minimum, the need for contextual links that can be copied into other apps, like say, iThoughts HD or Circuis Poinies NoteBook – click the link and it will take you to the iBook reference point).

Open content: I still own CDs from Apple's last venture into into interactive books, built on a proprietary platform called HyperCard. Voyager's books were wonderful. I hold on to Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind first person CD because the tiny QuickTime videos still give me access to Minsky's wit and wisdom manifested as walking, talking sidebars. Unfortunately, I can't read the HyperCard stacks anymore, and need to get out my paper copy of the book to give the video context. One of the biggest issues going forward for eBooks will be the format. It is pretty clear that the battle between Amazon and Apple will last for a significant period of time, creating confusion rather than clarity for students and for educators. We may eventually see a standard develop, but proprietary interests will dominate for now.

Assembly: As hinted at above, Apple needs a way for learners to assemble their materials. They could use Evernote or Microsoft's OneNote to bring everything together, but, as noted, the text of textbooks remains outside of the reach of those apps. Apple needs to address the ability to assemble learning materials and transform them into collections that are meaningful to learning. The book remains a top-down approach, and it doesn't really lend itself to emergent learning as a holistic experience.

I would recommend that Apple's next investment be in assembly technology that empowers learners to construct their own learning environment from components.

Apple also needs to offer a vision for the future of personal learning. I love iTunes University and the textbooks I've seen look slick. I'm not sure that Apple has an all-up idea for what the future learning experience will look like (with accompanying learning theory to support it). They need to create a vision, not from the point-of-view of the educator (as the Knowledge Navigator video did in its day) but from the perspective of the learner.  Unfortunately Apple seems to be coming to learning through the digitization of physical things, like books or lectures, rather than reinventing the entire experience.

Apple has the same issue with adult learners who piece together material from multiple places. We (I do include myself) can do this with scanners and Smartpens and webpage captures and downloaded video with a PC or a Mac. The iPad, however, creates silos that don't integrate. I have to send myself e-mail from the iPad so that I can find the article to put it into OneNote to the synchronize it back to the iPad.  It works, but it is too complicated for an Apple experience. Apple needs to figure out how to facilitate the personal assembly of learning and reference material on the iPad. If they do that, it will be an even bigger statement as to why general purpose devices will win the day as opposed to specialty devices – and it will go a long way to creating an innovative platform that will transform personal learning into a truly 21st-Century experience.

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Daniel W. Rasmus is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights. Rasmus is the author of Listening to the Future and Management by Design. Rasmus teaches at Bellevue College where he teaches Social Media and Personal Branding. He is also the Chief Knowledge Officer with the Virtual World Society.