There is no denying that Apple have actively been part of some interesting changes in education over the years. The Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 90s and the present version, ACOT2, combined with projects like Apple Distinguished Schools, Apple Distinguished Educators, Apple Regional Training Centres and Apple Solutions Experts … and we can always say that Apple have seen schools and children as a valued market, even if they haven’t always shown some of their educationalist credentials … but that is a for a long discussion over pizza and drinks.
The point to look at now is based on the recent Apple Education event, led by Phil Schiller at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. It was interesting to see the international league tables appear … I half expected a certain Secretary of State of Education appear … but part of this was to stress the importance of taking action to stop the “flatlining”.
The video of teachers, administrators, from US schools showed the downside that they are experiencing at the moment. However, it initially failed to show the good things that Apple and many other tech companies are already doing, but Phil did stress how there are lots of resources already being used and this includes the iPad … but more needs doing and no single company or group can fix it all. It is also worth pointing out to non-US readers that some of the problems will having fingers clearly pointed at the rigid curriculum that can be dictated by school boards. Now, this is not the National Curriculum as we know it in England but far more rigid, with text books centrally prescribed and lessons being taught by rote. From talking with colleagues in various US states they will point out that this varies from district to district and school to school, but that sounds all too familiar to us over here, being told that our ICT lessons are boring.
So, the scene is set. We are told that things are bad, stuff needs to change and teachers need more help and freedom. Apple’s answer is based on rebuilding student engagement … via the iPad of course.
Rebooting the text book
Text books are good … and the source of knowledge and information. Apparently the publishers have said this is true so Apple are now reselling these materials now so they can be used on the iPad. There is no denying that the the new books available via iBooks 2 are far better than looking at a plain text book and Roger Rosner, Vice President of Productivity Software, demonstrated how the new books can have a raft of features … some of which we have already seen via interactive materials already delivered to computers from Pearson, Nelson Thorne, etc … but put together with the extra features such as highlighting sections of text to create notecards for revision (study cards, flash cards … whatever you prefer to call them). The organisation of the layout after rotation, the use of multi-touch gestures to aid navigation … these are tweaks that make a good improvement to ideas we have already seen before.
And here we hit my first query. A quick delve into the background of the iBook will show that this is a special format belonging to Apple to allow you deliver specially formatted resources to iPads. This is similar but vitally different to an ePub formatted eBook. Thomas Baekdal covers some of the difference quite extensively but the first query is about whether it is right to lock down resources to a single platform or, as it turns out, a single device.
But I’m The Author … Aren’t I?
Apple have been thorough … they don’t just want the big names to provide the iBooks though, they want classroom teachers to create resources too. Thank $deity for that. A WYSIWYG tool to help educators collate and build fantastic resources that simply works. We all know the effort Apple go to when making things as simple and as quick as possible, and, having looked at building eBooks for some time, I had opted to go to Pages to do most of the work with a little bit of tidying up in either Calibre or Sigil. My initial thoughts on iBooks Author was that it followed suit, not surprising when you consider Roger Rosner heads up the team dealing with productivity tools like iWorks. Users of iWorks are now hoping that this shows that Apple will be taking more of an interest in the other tools instead of just doing limited ports for iOS versions of Keynote, Numbers and Pages, especially as iBooks Author will use Pages and Keynote resources. Reading Vicki Davis’ blog she found it pretty simple too.
And with such a fantastic tool, which is free, you have to wonder if there are catches. Apparently people have spotted some and time will tell what it will mean. The main thing some people have concerns about are who owns / controls the resulting materials. The EULA of iBooks Author includes some specific instructions about what you can and can’t do with resulting work. John Gruber over at DaringFireball.net has a number of blog posts looking at the EULA, Dan Wineman examines some specific sections on the restriction along with Cult of Mac and Audrey Watters. Now that is a lot of links to go through and most of it is opinion and interpretation. My take is as follows.
The EULA appears to say that if you use iBooks Author to create work then you have 2 choices. First is that you create works and make them available for free. If this is the case then you the iBook Author created file can also be given away for free from anywhere, including the iBooks Store. The second choice is that you want to sell your resulting iBook and to do this you *have* to publish that file via the iBooks Store, and Apple take a 30% cut of that.
Don’t get me wrong … I have no issue with Apple taking a cut. They are operating as a publisher, are charging a commission at a published rate and if I want to do any differently and still have it go out via the iBooks store and earn from it then I have to go to another publisher who has a commercial arrangement with Apple … and knowing Apple there will still be a 30% cut *and* whatever my publisher wants to charge. I would expect the same with a physical book … the publisher takes a cut as does the book shop. I have no problem with it being 30% either … as an unpublished author I would find this reasonable, knowing that other means of publishing are out there … but … and this is key … if I want to make full use of the wide range of options in an iBook then I know that I have to agree to working in Apple’s closed arena. If I feel that I don’t need to do that and that other ePub creation tools will do the business then I am free to do that.
The areas that I need an explicit answer on include the following.
If I create an eBook and have 2 versions of it, one created in something like Sigil and the other in iBooks Author, can I sell the iBooks version via the store and the Sigil version in other places? They are different works, but include the majority of the same text, images and resources. The difference is the creation tool.
If I take an existing book I have produced and I am selling elsewhere can I also create an iBooks version and still sell the original?
The presumption on the EULA is that the individual (i.e. the End User) has agreed to it. As well all know, most schools will deploy software to computers via central management tools. With Macs this will be a combination of DeployStudio and Apple Remote Desktop in most places but the agreement has already been agreed on behalf of the end user … and this is point number two. Does a school have the right to agree on the behalf of their employees to the EULA on how things will be published? Does it also have the right to agree it on behalf of children? Does the network manager / IT support team have the right to do this on behalf of the school? I know that EULAs are routinely agreed on behalf of the school but this one has some specific restrictions and perhaps people need some training around this or at least a policy? And this clearly steps on the toes of how schools deal (or fail to deal) with IP.
And this brings up another concern I have.
I mentioned about children creating and publishing … when we look at the whole event I only heard from marketing people, product managers, schools administrators, teachers … we saw lots of children using laptops and the provided resources … other than highlighting text / taking a few nots in an iBook (perhaps under direction from a teacher?) I didn’t see any creation from children. When I went to the Apple Leadership Summit last year a key area covered was children as creators / co-creators / collaborators. At least there we had good examples of using the Wiki Server section of Lion Server for sharing and collaboration, but this was missed at this announcement. If you are not going to talk about children, as learners, as creators and collaborators then you have failed as a company engaging in education.
iTunes U is a fantastic tool and it is easy to see that it is targeted to gain some of the market from people like Blackboard, but if schools start to rely on this as the single delivery mechanism for resources, then you remove valuable tools from the hands of learners.
So, my summary … the new iBooks are going to be a fantastic resource. iBooks Author is a powerful, yet simple, tool for putting together these resources. iTunes U will be a good way of stringing a series of resources together. The caveats would be that we should not limit ourselves to a single platform or device (from what I have seen / heard / tried you cannot get the new format iBooks onto anything other than iPads … ruling out iPhones and iPod touches), that provided resources are only part of the equation, that you should not forget to give learners opportunity to collaborate and create, that there are technical / legal concerns that have a lot of opinion around them but perhaps need an official stance … but we should also not be scared to try something new. If you are concerned then continue to produce your resources with tools such as Sigil and Calibre, publish as standard .ePub files and make the most of them. There is still a wealth of tricks to make these eBooks wonderful anyway.