Reflections on the Apple Education Event

I had the opportunity to spend this morning with the Chronicle‘s Jeff Young, live-tweeting from the Apple Education announcement event. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, today’s announcement included:

  • the release of the iBooks 2 app for iOS, which allows for rich multimedia interactive textbooks;
  • the launch of the Textbooks category in the iBooks store, including an already-available collection of high-school texts priced at $14.99 and under;
  • the release of the iBooks Author application for Mac, which allows individuals to create textbooks (and other books — a note I’ll return to shortly) with the drag-and-drop ease of other Apple applications including Keynote;
  • the launch of the iTunes U app for iOS, which facilitates the distribution not just of the course-oriented podcasts of iTunes U’s existing service, but of fully coordinated curricula.

It was, for a small number of non-hardware releases, nonetheless a powerful event; the demos were engagingly slick and the videos of teacher and education administrator testimony about the problems they face in schools today, and the ways that more customizable, interactive materials might help them do the job they love better, were quite compelling. And of course, that both iPad apps and the iBooks Author application are being made available for free, and that the textbooks available in the iBooks Store are reasonably priced, is extremely important.

I’m excited about some of the possibilities that Apple presented, and by some possibilities that they didn’t point toward today. These authoring tools and distribution platforms will no doubt provide some interesting options for a range of authors — textbook authors, of course, but also scholarly authors, and general interest authors. Getting one’s own material out and into circulation in a popular format will, with these systems, be extremely easy.

But there are some notable gaps here, as well. The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

And that closedness manifests in another, more crucial way; the iBooks Author application allows for seamless publication of texts it produces on the iBooks platform, for consumption on the iPad, but the options beyond that are quite limited. iBooks Author permits export to PDF and to plain text, but that’s it, and the native files it produces are a proprietary .iba format. I was hoping for ePub 3 support, but that seems not to be in the cards, which is a shame; new text formats that adhere to accepted open standards will stand the greatest possible chance of surviving future platform and software transitions.

Other software manufacturers and book distribution platforms are bound to respond to this announcement, and soon; one can only hope that Apple and other developers will build on the aspects of these new products that are truly awesome, while fostering a deeper kind of interactivity and a more open environment.

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