A first look at the free iBooks 2 app and free sample textbook

I'm still excited about Thursday's event and Apple's new education/textbook initiative. You can read my overview here, and my first look at the free iTunes U app here. And now I want to take a first look at the new version of the iBooks app, called iBooks 2. It's similar to the previous version but now adds the ability to read interactive textbooks and other books created with Apple's new free authoring software called iBooks Author. To appreciate the new capabilities of this app, you can download the free textbook by the famed biologist E.O. Wilson titled Life on Earth. You can find it by going to the iBookstore, either via your iBooks 2 app or via iTunes on your desktop computer. If you go to the Categories area, you'll see that there's a new category called Textbooks, which contains books that take advantage of the new features. So far, in addition to the freebie, there are just seven textbooks available, all in the sciences and math, and all for $14.99. 

The Life on Earth book uses video, including a "cover page video" of E.O. Wilson, animation, interactive features, videos, photo galleries, a quiz, projects, and more. The interactive features let you examine the genome, for example, and an interactive 3D illustration lets you rotate a nucleosome to view it from all different angles. Processes such as chromosome separation and the phases of mitosis are illustrated with a movie and an interactive graphic.

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Chapter 2 focuses on ecology, and introduces the major biomes on Earth. Graphics and photo galleries are used to illustrate the biomes. Short videos of Wilson introduce the concepts of an ecosystem and human evolution. Timelapse satellite imagery shows the waxing and waning of fires on the African savanna. 

A review summarizes the ecology section and offers five questions. You answer the questions and then click on Check Answer to see if you got it right. One of the questions shows a map of North and Central America with 4 locations marked. Your task is to drag an image of the correct biome to the location marked on the map.

Overall, it's a good example of what an interactive textbook can offer. It's easy to imagine how this would be more engaging for a student than a print textbook. On the other hand, they won't likely be dazzled by it, because it's not all that different from the sort of text and multimedia experience they already have on the web. What Apple's textbooks add, I guess, is a market and mechanism for creating and distributing.

In some ways, this reminds me of Apple's authoring tool from the late 1980s called HyperCard. It was the first easy-to-use hypertext-creation tool, and allowed the creation of documents in a fashion similar to today's web. But this was before the web existed. It was extremely popular, and many people, including academics, created and circulated their HyperCard documents. Once the web came along, it pretty much replaced HyperCard. I can imagine iBooks Author being a similar phenomenon: an easy-to-use tool that stimulates people around their world to create their iBook. It will be interesting to see whether this really takes off. I'm guessing that it will.

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.