Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple for the Professor?

Apple’s latest foray into the education market caught my eye.  It’s promising, but I can’t get past some sticking points.

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?