Will iBooks Author Create A Wave of Self-Published Teachers?

As with anything Apple, the recent education-themed announcement has everyone dreaming of a better future for the children, and all that. The question you keep reading is “will e-textbooks change the face of education?”, just like people asked about the iPad when it first came out. And while I’m very impressed by the design of the new textbooks available on iBooks 2, and I love the fact that they include touchable animations and videos to supplement text, the books themselves don’t seem revolutionary. They are evolutionary, certainly – they are digitized, enhanced versions of learning materials we’ve been using for decades. They are very engaging, at least some of them are. I get it. They are cheap, too. Great. Up-to-date, portable, and I’m able to take notes and quiz myself. Perfect. Thank you, Apple. Really, thank you.

But a better textbook doesn’t herald a new form of education. The sample chapters from McGraw-Hill and Pearson were just textbooks, with some fancy-looking animations. E.O. Wilson’s “Life on Earth” is really good, but it is sort of a self-promotion packaged as a book: the end of chapter 2, titled “Project Based Learning”, is just a short description of what will appear in the book as projects, rather than an actual project for students to complete. Whatever, there is a timeline for all of this, I understand.

What really interests me is iBooks Author. Fiddling around with it, it feels like a version of Pages built for the iPad screen, with organizational tools that fit the paradigm of “Book”: chapters, sub-chapters, title pages, etc. There are built-in ways to include multimedia components, like little comprehension self-quizzes and image galleries. If you are handy with a tool such as Hype, you can easily put your HTML5 animations into a book. It’s a great package of components for the budding book publisher.

But it struck me – why not create course materials with this? As a teacher, why shouldn’t I just craft my course documents and all the rest, package it up, and distribute it to my students? Well, there are several reasons iBooks Author isn’t ready for this.

No copy-paste. Actually, there is a version of copy-paste. Select some text, un-highlight it, “Search” for the text, then copy it from the search bar. But this is not true copy-paste, and so iBooks will be useless for students who want to paste notes into other apps like Noteshelf or Evernote. That is a true short-coming. I understand the need to protect the content of reference materials, but there should a small fair-use maximum word count that can be copied.

Note-taking is not robust enough. I mean, this is a touch-screen deviceMade by Apple, the company that created iBooks. Why oh why haven’t they included the ability to mark the page itself, like with a stylus? Is it because Steve Jobs hated styluses? Well, he was wrong about that. He really was. I’m running two iPad pilot programs with high school students, and they need the stylus for effective creative and scholarly tasks. You just need it. Sorry, Steve. And iBooks, if it had an awesome handwriting engine like Noteshelf, would be the killer education app. It’s not the case.

No print, or open in: If I wrote a book and wanted to include a worksheet for a teacher to use with her class, she would be unable to print the worksheet, copy the text, or open the file in some other app that would accommodate her desire to save one page. In that sense it’s no good for collecting lesson plans or anything people might use – it will only be useful for materials people might read. I guess you could include the worksheet as an image in the book, have the reader open the image in full screen view, and then screenshot the worksheet, and paste it into Pages or Noteshelf or something like that. Pretty cumbersome.

I hate to hate on Apple products, because this is an exciting development for schools who want to cut down on textbook costs, who want to increase engagement with their students, and all that. We want the same thing where I work, which is why we’re running 1:1 iPad pilots in the first place. I guess I kind of expected more from iBooks Author.

But lo, there is a tool for the Mac that makes iPad-friendly books, allows you to print and share individual pages of a book, and allows for handwritten notes. It doesn’t, like iBooks, allow the author to update all the readers with a newly edited copy, but copy-paste will work just fine. It’s called Pages. For the teacher who self-publishes, Pages is the better, more flexible tool for now.

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