The recent announcement by Apple of the iBook textbooks and the iBooks Author has already engendered a lot of discussion on many blogs and podcasts about Apple's proprietary authoring system based on epub3--the challenge it presents to the traditional textbook industry, and both the advantages and restrictions it presents to potential authors. Of course we must not forget the powerful promise of both the iBooks and iBooks Author in improving students' learning in and out of school. Hold onto that thought.
In Apple's promotional video for iBooks textbooks, inspired teachers talk about what engages them with teaching and learning and, most importantly what engages students. The teachers quickly segway to the downside of traditional textbooks: Textbooks are outdated, static, expensive, and subject to adoption cycles that restrict the currency of students' knowledge and teachers' creativity. Oh yes, and the books are heavy. They weigh down students' backpacks; most parents have read or heard reports about how these backpacks will cause orthopedic problems that start with first graders carrying backpacks almost bigger than them. The Apple video teachers go one step further and note that because of the weight of the backpack, students might just stop using the books because of their disdain for carrying them around.
In tapping the huge textbook market, Apple has done what all critics of traditional textbooks have done, long before the availability of e-textbook authoring tools like iBooks Author. For decades educators have been belaboring how static and unengaging textbooks are. Ever since computer labs appeared in schools in the 1980s educators have had a vision of replacing print with other media, or at least using variations of print juxtaposed with other "richer" media. Textbooks have persisted, and will persist for some time, surely longer than they should, because the books are the very core of the institutionalized notion of what a curriculum is, how it is organized, and how teachers should think about the topical domains they teach. Most of the blogs and podcasts that have focused on Apple's latest endeavor have noted that textbook publisher are also a huge industry controlled by relatively few larger companies, most of which apparently have already struck deals with Apple. But, ultimately, and likely sooner than later because of iPads and other tablet devices, or the upcoming array of "ultrabook" notebook computers, traditional print textbooks, the centuries old artifact of teaching and learning, will fade away.
But the question that we will address on this site in the sections and our upcoming book is not so much the political or economic implications of the disappearance of the traditional textbook industry, but the implications it has for student engagement and learning. Almost everything we think of when we envision textbooks will be transformed into something else. Again, the Apple promotional video is interesting as a recent discussion of what the qualities of these new iBooks textbooks that will make them better than a ten pound, 400 page general science book used by 8th graders? Apple responds to the teachers' concerns about traditonal print textbooks. The video notes that the new books will be engaging because of the audio, video and "interactivity" information that comes to life and information that is always up to date. Apple promises that the new textbooks will allow students to do things " they could never do before." The video show stunning examples of these multimodal transformations.
In the promotional video, Roger Rosner, Apple Vice President of Productivity Applications noted that Apple focused on three key areas in the iBooks textbooks initiative: (1) fast fluid navigation; (2) beautiful graphics; and (3) better and easier way to take notes and use those notes. These are the most currently publicized set of affordances designed into e-textbooks because the designers could design with the features given the technology available. But are these features just a given as being educationally sound or more engaging? In our upcoming book, sections of which will be posted and discussed here, we critique multimodal transformation like the Apple iBooks textbooks or other e-textbooks and related materials with an eye on both research in how literacies like reading, writing and discussing can be used to support learning, and a in terms of a bridging framework in which we carefully look at the features of traditonal forms and how they are being digitally transformed for good or bad. We can use Rosner three points to give a taste of how this will work.
On Rosner's first point, it seems like a no-brainer that "fast fluid" navigation is a huge advantage. But to what extent does the ability to rapidly navigate out of where you are currently studying something in print, or focused deeply on slowly reading a piece of complex print text, also afford some negatives like taking your preceptual span and your brain away from what you were engaging with? In terms of bridging, we have to keep in mind that print texts, as linear presentations of content, also used built-in features to engage students with difficult concepts (topic signaling, vocabulary support, marginal glossing) and controlling navigation to the next page. In terms of Rossner's second point, we can all agree that beautiful graphics are important and something that traditional print texts don't support as well as e-Books. But there is research that both supports and cautions about the types and placement of graphics or other visual elements in relation to print. Again, if a reader is concentrating on an important or difficult piece of text, to what degree can the attention and engagement needed be jeopardized by a engaging graphic? Finally Rossner's third point about the availability and highlighting and note taking/annotation tools is particularly important. Since highlighting and notetaking are taken as time-tested studying techniques, most people assume that if tools are available that make them more accessible, that students will learn more with them. But research indicates pretty clearly that the use of highlighting and notetaking, with both traditional or digital tools, require instruction, guided practice, and individual practice for students to use the tools more effectively. If they are so easy and available, could it be that students will halt the fluency of their reading by stopping to highligh or write notes? Or that they will rely more on a possible overabundance of highlights ineffectively executed or copious notes that do not reflect the importance levels of topics in a text?
We applaud both the Apple iBooks textbooks and Author, along with the other textbook systems like Kno and Inkling that are on the forefront of developing e-textbooks and course systems. But, against the backdrop of the amazing features, we will be carefully scrutinzing the affordances of the all of these as we continue study what textbooks will become and as they are being transformed, how they will continue to support or improve upon the way they support students' learning across the disciplines.