Missing the Forest for the Trees

One big message of Apple’s textbook announcement in New York last week was that the new iBook textbook model is going to lighten student’s backpacks by reducing the amount of paper that they have to lug around. Sure, the format has some interactive razzle dazzle, which may contribute to higher levels of engagement, but that is generally speculative with respect to how effective these new iBooks will be in the long run. (There has been some initial study about the efficacy of this new kind of interactive text on student achievement, and the early results are optimistic. The long term, large scale impact is still far from being proven. Saving trees is a worthy purpose, but is it really the disruptive feature of digital textbooks?)

There are some bloggers who are also critical of Apple’s strategy because it comes with some licensing strings attached. Books built using Apple’s free iBooks Author software are encumbered by a mandatory license agreement with Apple should the author wish to sell the book via Apple’s iBook store. This certainly reflects a company that is driven by profit as much or more than altruism. On the flip side, Apple does not require any licensing agreement to create a book for personal use. (UPDATE: Apple will distribute my book for free in the iBookstore if I want to give the book away, and doing so does not prevent me from distributing the book in other ways as long as I don’t sell it via other channels. See below for a further thoughts.) From my perspective, the ability to easily distribute books for free where the real disruption in education could gain a toe hold.

What bloggers (and possibly even Apple) seem to be missing is that the real disruption could happen by turning students loose with the iBooks Author software. I agree with many of these critics that it’s not that big a deal that publishers with massive financial resources and incentives now have a marginally better system of creating digital versions of their books. But imagine that instead of buying textbooks, students are given the opportunity to turn the learning process on its head and take responsibility for publishing their own textbooks. Books they can carry with them on an iPad and share with their peers. Perhaps students will work in collaborative teams to create these books. And rather than just books of plain text and pictures, these books can also include videos that the students make (using the iPad) capturing the skills and steps required to solve complex math problems or explain the student’s perspective on an historical event or literary text.

As the basis for these student made textbooks, teachers could use the same iBooks Author tool to create dynamic lessons that teach the concepts that the students will use in the creation of their own books. Many teachers today are creating their own teaching materials anyway. Why not create those materials using the same tool which students will use? This could foster a virtuous cycle of learning and publishing where students and teacher are engaged in a collaborative process, not in a top down model where teachers are exclusively responsible for creating materials and planning lessons. As students become more engaged in the process they could take more responsibility for planning and delivering lessons.

These textbooks could become the portfolio that demonstrate a student’s mastery, not only of the expectation that they can read and write, but also the expectation that they can analyze and synthesize what they’ve learned and communicate effectively using 21st century tools. Instead of relying on a student’s ability to bubble in the best of four possible answers to a question, we can see how well a student understands the underlying standards and concepts of the subjects of study in the books they author. In their own words with their own explanations.

This inverted model addresses some of the compelling concerns about our reliance on a factory based educational system. It brings creativity into the learning process and proposes a system of learning that leverages student’s interest in 21st century skills and tools. Imagine classrooms where students are using iBooks Author to create a text which they will update and leverage throughout their whole K-12 educational career.

Sure, there are complexities of the current educational paradigm that won’t be solved by giving students a better publishing tool. But this new tool could be the first step in truly disrupting how we assess student achievement and engage students in learning in a way that recognizes each student’s unique skills and perspectives. It may not have been Apple’s intent, but they’ve given us a tool that extends the democratization of information that erupted with the invention of the internet. I look forward to seeing how this tool changes how we teach, learn, and inform.

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON LICENSING: Apple has been criticized for enforcing a license on the output of its software if you wish to sell your work. Several people are referring to this as an ownership grab by Apple. On Mashable, Kapost says Apple Will Own Your Work With iBooks Author, quoting Sascha Segan’s iBooks Author: You Work For Apple Now. I’m not a lawyer, but think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Apple could ever assert ownership over your intellectual property. Clearly some aspect of the current copyright law would extend to the creator of the content, and section “D” of the iBooks Author software End User License Agreement states that you may only use the software to produce work that contains material to which you (the author) own a copyright. It does not claim in that document that your use of the software requires giving up your copyright or intellectual property. In the EULA, Apple is asserting a privilege to distribute work produced by its software, but that’s only superficially different from any publisher making a contract to own the rights to publish an author’s work. The difference is, of course, related to the means of distribution — Apple isn’t printing big paper books and shipping them around the country. If anyone should be nervous about Apple’s licensing, it should be traditional publishers. I could be wrong, but it seems there are currently very few ways for an author to publish and distribute a textbook today without the assistance of a publishing company. Apple is getting in the middle of that business. With a large distribution network (how many million iPads are there?) Apple is in a position to open a market to the independent authors.

(Disclosure: I hold shares of Apple stock in my retirement portfolio.)

Sunday January 22, 2012 — Mark —