Thursday, January 19, 2012
Apple for the Professor?
As I understand it -- and I don’t claim to fully get it -- Apple is making several moves. It’s releasing a software package for prospective authors, to make it easier to format books to sell on ibooks. It’s partnering with several of the major textbook publishers to issue ipad-only versions of textbooks in several basic courses, complete with interactive bells and whistles. And it’s making available about 100 courses from name-brand universities, though it’s not entirely clear just what “making available” means just yet. It sounds like more than just podcasts of lectures, but how much more isn’t obvious.
First the good stuff. Textbooks age fairly rapidly, depending on the field. Scientific ones need to be up to speed with the latest discoveries, technical ones need to be conversant with the latest iterations, and political ones need to keep pace with changes in governments. (At my last college, well into the 2000’s, the pull-down maps in several classrooms still featured the USSR.) That’s hard to do with “dead tree” books; once they’re published, they’re published. But e-books should, in principle, be easy to update. They could easily contain “quiz yourself” widgets, touch-activated glossaries, active links to relevant sources, and the like.
That’s in addition to some of the cool and useful things that ipads can already do. They’re great for journalism classes, since they can record interviews, hold notes, and even scan police radios. The allied health folk are tripping over themselves to get ipads for students in clinicals, since that’s the route hospitals have already gone. And they’re kinda fun.
But I’m not there yet. Before supporting widespread adoption across the college, there’s a host of issues to address.
The most obvious is cost, which I suspect is a dealbreaker for k-12. The cheapest ipads start at about five hundred dollars, and they go up quickly from there. Apple touted the low price of e-textbooks, but if you need to first spend five hundred bucks before getting any savings, I don’t see that happening. Then you have to assume some level of loss, breakage, water damage, and the like. Unlike glass screens, textbooks don’t shatter when you drop them. And any parent of young children can tell you they’d get dropped.
At the college level, the argument might be a bit more convincing, if the cost of the ipad would be covered by financial aid. Even here, though, the savings only happen if the student is saving money on a whole bunch of courses. (The current offerings are few and far between, though I expect they’ll grow.) If you use the e-text for, say, Intro to Biology, but then switch to dead-tree versions after that, you come out behind.
E-texts also defeat the used book market, which has historically been the way for savvy students to take the edge off textbook costs. If you have to buy ‘new’ every time, then I understand why publishers are on board, but the advantage for the student diminishes further.
I have to admit being really bothered by the platform exclusivity. If e-books were available as websites with logins, then it wouldn’t matter (much) how you got to the website; ipads would be great, but laptops or android tablets or even desktops would get the job done in a pinch. But for a college to force all of its students and faculty to work with a single vendor puts a hell of a lot of trust in one vendor. Some of us have moved away from Blackboard and towards open-source solutions for the LMS precisely to get away from the single-vendor problem. I’d hate to fall back into it on an even larger scale.
And on a really basic level, ipads lack keyboards. Students who’ve gotten around that by buying macbook airs or netbooks or low-end laptops would suddenly be on the hook for yet another expensive device, and would have to have both of them at the ready for various tasks. (I’d hate to write a five-page paper on the onscreen keyboard.) Even within the single vendor, I’d expect Apple to at least make versions of the texts available on macs. If I had just bought a macbook air for school, I would be pissed.
The “courses” raise a host of other issues, but I don’t understand them well enough yet to comment. As they take shape, I’ll certainly be curious to see what they include. As potential study aids, they might provide helpful alternatives to the Gates Foundation/Kahn Academy model. (Even now, it comes down to Gates vs. Jobs...) But it sounds like they’re aiming higher than that. We shall see.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Do you foresee assigning ipad textbooks next year?
As a student I'd have hated it, as I'd probably have to spring for a couple during my degree, either from breakage or (more likely) obsolescence. (Trying to use web sites on an older computer you can't update is painful — I wonder if publishers will show the self-restraint to make their ebooks backward compatible with 4-5 year old iPads.)
I felt the announcement revealed a number of normative assumptions about the nature of education, and I'm starting to wonder whether these assumptions come from some kind of common educational background among key decision makers in edtech and publishing corporations.
The rest of us seem to work in a messier world.
As a community college biologist, am I expected to man my own electron microscope or DNA sequencer to obtain media for my homemade book? Will I be storyboarding animations in my down time?
As it is now, the license agreements for the textbooks I adopt allow me to use their art in class handouts and in Powerpoint presentations. Many of us have lots of this type of material (even some that we're probably not "allowed" to use). I can't believe we won't see an epidemic of copyright infringement as faculty try to make their own books.
(I have a pretty liberal attitude when it comes to the use of copyright-protected works in education, so for me to become heedful, we must be really close to crossing a line!)
As a professor, my concerns are twofold: proprietary platform rather than open source, and that textbooks will change in the middle of a course. Its bad enough that most of the "updates" are just renumbering problems so both faculty and students have to abandon perfectly good books; can you imagine entire sections changing at the whim of the author? Planning could be a nightmare if textbooks worked the way other things do in the e-world.
That said, I would think seriously about self-publishing a succinct textbook myself. The tools look nice. Why make lecture notes available when you can write a book?
Finally, the first comment about older systems fascinates me. One thing students complain about is that various interfaces written with CrapWare (tm) will not work or won't work correctly on an iPhone or other common devices. They expect a CMS or textbook learning tools or college registration interface to work as smoothly as Facebook, and they sometimes do not work at all. I wonder if one of those named Apple partners is in this game simply to get their systems to actually work on an iPhone or iPad.
what if you don't have internet access at home? do you need internet?
can you print the e-books? what if you want to do some markup for studying?
can you resell them? if not, how cheap are they versus a normal book?
also, the ebook idea will divulge just how crooked the textbook industry really is. if i can get a textbook for $100, and an ebook for $40, are you telling me it costs $60 to print the book?
and the justification for not using old textbooks is that they just aren't made anymore (publishers conveniently make a limited run). well, with ebooks, doesn't that idea of "running out" of stock go away? can colleges use an ebook from 5 years ago for $5 a piece instead of the one written last year that costs $50?
how will the ebook market justify price differential between editions at this point, and further more, how will colleges justify it? will a prof cut his students a break by using the ebook from 5 years ago that costs $5, or will he/she make them buy the $50 one? now, it will be his/her choice. things become a little more political. before, it was just "you have to buy this book because they stopped printing the one from last year." now, you should have access to every edition, and prices should reflect the novelty of the new edition.
This misses Dean Dad's point. The point is, you need a computer with a keyboard for some things. Buying an iPad doesn't replace the computer for a college student who has to write papers, it just supplements it. I haven't experimented with the bluetooth keyboards, so that might be a way around it, but I've found that my iPad really isn't a good tool for most of the tasks I'd use a computer for.
For that matter: About half of our teaching staff are very poorly paid, nontenure employees. Unless the University is suddenly going to spring for ipads for all instructors (ha! We had to fight to get access to 10-year-old desktops!), I am not convinced many of our staff could afford to teach using this technology.
All of the tech issues about durability, compatibility, support, obsolescence, etc, are secondary to cost barriers, in my mind.
This announcement isn't about moving textbooks to iBooks next year. It's really about textbook publishing a decade from now. It's about getting publishers, teachers and students to begin thinking about the possibilities as they move away from paper. It's like the introduction of the laser printer and PageMaker back in the early 1980s. A decade later we had desktop publishing.
As to the cost of the platform, I expect Apple to come out with new models at the current price points and keep making older versions at lower price points, as they've already done with the iPhone. Their object is probably to sell iPads in bulk to school districts, which might then avoid the high costs of dead tree textbooks. Note that the costs of i-textbooks to date is less than $15 each. Sure, there are lots of problems to be solved in this mode of textbook publishing, because we're at the very start of a learning curve.
I downloaded sample chapters of textbooks to my iPad yesterday. I don't care for many of the bells and whistles, the embedded videos and such. Even the dead tree textbooks have gone overboard on the eye candy. Here's what I did like. You can highlight words or phrases, and you can attach notes to your highlights. The notes are then automatically organized and collected into flash cards, on which the highlighted material is on the front and your note is on the back. There are also flashcards for vocabulary. I think that could be a very productive tool for textbook interaction.
Over time I expect more innovation on how a textbook can be made more immersive and successful in delivering knowledge.
By aiming first at K-12 instead of college (which is where the biggest savings might come in) Apple is, I suspect, trying to train the next generation of learners to think differently about their textbooks and their education.
OK, why is my captcha today "testical?"
Does kill the used book market. And there are some other issues; the software that runs the texts does not play well with MSIE; plays well with Firefox and Chrome, though. And the display is much better on larger (wider) monitors.
I fully expect Wikibooks to take over the market for lower-division undergraduate courses. Honestly, a century-old Calculus book isn't a handicap - and a fifty year old Physics book is perfectly adequate for the first two semesters. I don't think undergraduate chemistry for engineers, except chem engineers, has changed since before WWII. As a result, these things only have to be written once.
Amen - my nook color ($250) does everything I need it to do in terms of reading content (books, magazines, pdfs) and editing. You can already rent e-texts for a fraction of the costs of hard copy. Basically, the real losers here are the textbook publishers who will now have to make their content compatible with another platform.
The content of intro physics hasn't changed, but the pedagogy has changed a lot. Some books are a vast improvement over ones from 50 years ago, although some are worse because the authors are out of touch with anything other than modern physics research. They don't actually know how classical mechanics is used by their engineering students.
However, some parts of those books have not changed in a century (I'm thinking of thermodynamics, which is introduced as if Boltzmann never lived) or glitz has gotten in the way of the basics.
Anon @6:57 AM
I hear you about cost, but many students who cannot afford books do own an iPhone. That might be why they can't afford books, but that isn't the point.
Further, many simply do not need a book if they have all of the "handouts" available. I'm going to look at the CC Intermediate Algebra course to see if it is what I expect it is: a fully interactive version of all of the SmartNotebook files that are used in that school's class much as they are used in our CC's classes. If you already have all of your lectures in some combination of PowerPoint and SmartNotebook, you may already have a book if the content is yours! And no CMS mess to deal with, where you have to copy each file into each section of a course if you are using the one we are stuck with ...
What happens when they graduate? Are they expected to have memorized the information by then?
I used a lot of my university texts for years afterwards. They were very useful for stuff I vaguely recalled but was fuzzy on, because they still had my notes and bookmarks in them, and I'd already pored over them at least once so they were familiar.
Even a 10" iPad is *barely* large enough to replace a textbook IMO.
I do wonder how useful the interactive tools really are, though. I suppose they make a certain amount of sense in middle school. But I'm not really sure that an animated rotating DNA strand (which I do think is really cool) will actually help students learn more about dna.
But Apple is not the only player in town -there's a non profit called ck-12 that's producing all manner of interactive content for free. As long as that content is available for multiple platforms, I can't see Apple dominating unless they give their devices away. Apple did that with PCs in the 80's and still lost the PC market for the most part because of cost. Tablets will move the same direction as more less-than-$300 android options hit the market. Apple is trying to establish an install base so that more People are invested in their platform and don't have the choice to switch to android. Were I a public school administrator, I would wait this out another year and then look at android tablets - mostly because of cost.
I have thought (and written) quite a bit about this. First is the discussion about consumer driven markets. Who should make the choice? Digital textbooks are able separate the content from the medium, and allow flexibility--unless we are locked into a hardware platform. See: http://theprofessornotes.com/archives/2014
I also wrote about this in this post: http://theprofessornotes.com/archives/1104
I actually presented a paper on the challenges of digital textbook pricing at the Western DSI (Decision Sciences Institute) conference in 2011. In that paper, I point out that by driving the logistics costs of moving, handling, and returning paper products out of the system, along with other costs such as maintaining a bookstore, one can drive the costs down to about (surprise!) $15.00 while maintaining the 2 year profits of the publisher. And by withdrawing the pressures of the resale market, the profits only go up from there. First thoughts that led to that paper were written about here: http://theprofessornotes.com/archives/665 and here http://theprofessornotes.com/archives/663
I would welcome other thoughts on those posts.
Now my school fought tooth and nail over giving non-tenure faculty access to computers, printers, copiers, the library, and other existing campus resources, some of which they already had surplus of in storage. I sincerely doubt they're going to agree to buy me an ipad.
So - whatever - my students can afford them, but as the instructor, I can't.
I suppose we should be glad that we aren't asked to pay for the textbooks we receive.