Last week Apple released free software to make e-books for the iPad, declaring that the company intended to “reinvent the textbook.” Apple also updated its iTunesU service, first released four years ago, to make it possible for professors to put syllabi, lecture videos and audio recordings, and e-textbooks into one spot for students.College administrators and professors had mixed reactions to the news: some said it could spur far greater adoption of digital textbooks, while others criticized the product for relying too heavily on Apple products, leaving out key support for PC’s and tablets running Android software.
Below are some points made by campus leaders, in interviews or on their blogs:
Making it easy-to-create books will help authors keep textbooks more up-to-date.
“Providing constant content updates through the Cloud is key,” argues Jed Macosko, associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University, in an analysis he published on the university’s PR Web site. “Educators will be able to create more quickly and for free, which lowers costs and improves accessibility for students. Some people might worry that content will become unreliable, but what we’ve seen with Wikipedia is that the cream of the crop typically rises to the top.”
Apple’s announcement is far from revolutionary, and in fact locks content in the company’s products.
“What a lost opportunity,” wrote Audrey Watters, on her Hack Education blog. “If this is a revolutionary announcement about reshaping textbooks and educational content, we must ask revolutionary for whom? For wealthy schools? For students who have iPads at home and parents willing to pay out of pocket for supplementary textbook materials? For publishers?” The passionate post drew cheers on Twitter from many professors. As David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, Tweeted, “this isn’t about ‘changing everything’ for education, is about reconfiguring the business models of textbooks ie who profits.”
Apple will likely refine its e-textbooks over time, as it did with the iPod and iPhone.
“Instead of expecting Apple to save education, why don’t you appreciate the waves they’re making in the water and use that momentum to keep the conversation focused and moving?,” argued Tim Owens, on his blog. He noted that the iPhone was criticized at first because it lacked some hoped-for features, but the company has added many of them in subsequent releases. “We got a lot of interesting things today, and all I hear are people unhappy,” he added. “When we set the ship on fire before it has even made it out of the dock we’ll never get to sail.”
The spotlight on e-textbooks will help all players.
Even if Apple’s new products don’t catch on, the media frenzy around its announcement helped raise interest in digital offerings, said Kyle D. Bowen, Purdue University’s director of informatics. “The most important outcome of yesterday’s announcement was to bring mainstream attention to textbooks and the issue of e-textbooks,” he added. “Textbooks are really kind of an outdated form of delivering this content, and we see somebody trying to come up with something slightly different.” Mr. Bowen and his team at Purdue have built their own build-a-textbook tool, called JetPack.
More professors will try making custom textbooks for their courses.
“If there were a way to ‘publish’ a book only targeting my class, by converting those outlines I’ve made into short chapters on each topic, well… Why not?” writes Chris Wolverton, a biology professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, on his blog. He says he could quickly take his notes and slides and crank out an e-book with Apple’s new authoring software. Though only students with iPads could easily view the full multimedia version, he could distribute a PDF for other students. “Having the freedom and flexibility to put together a little book to accompany a specialty course is an attractive idea to me, one that I plan to experiment with.”
Alumni offices and other departments can now enter the e-book world.
“While Apple is aiming this at textbook authors and publishers, there’s no reason we can’t easily create rich multimedia versions of our college magazines using it,” argued Mike Richwalsky, director of marketing services at John Carroll University. “Apple just made it redonkulously easy to put your alumni magazine on the iPad—and, best of all, they did it for free.”
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