March 27, 2018
When iBooks Author was launched in 2011 I reached out to a favorite teacher, and fellow Apple nerd, from high school to geek out about the possibilities it allowed. No longer would schools have to compromise when buying text books. So often most schools simply have to purchase whatever books are put out by the large text book publishers and use them however worked best for their curriculum, skipping around the book as needed. Now each school district could hire professionals in Physics, History, Sociology, and any other subject, to produce textbooks that would be tailored explicitly for their standards and curriculum.
These could be rich, interactive texts where the schools had extra money to hire designers and content creators, but could also be strictly text or simple images based if budgets/subject demanded. iBooks Author allows for beautiful content and layout no matter how rich you wanted to go. They could be built from sections or chapters that are shared around the country, but each district could choose how they fit into the full text, only distributing the parts that were actually relevant to their students. Not to mention the many other potential benefits that come with eBooks like updating the outdated content as needed rather than every 5-10 years, simple linking between chapters as well rich hypertext to outside content like websites and videos, and the much reduced cost in buying one device per student rather than half a dozen overpriced books.
iBooks Author could given schools the power to become more localized. Does your school district have a heavy population of Portuguese language speakers? Add important translations to the beginning of each chapter in a Geology book. Does your town have special significance in a moment in history? You can highlight that in the History text book. And Teachers could have greater voice at each step in the process, working with the writers rather than helplessly reading the books chosen for them. The possibilities were great, as was the potential to change the very broken education system in this country.
Ultimately the great benefit would have been to give individual school districts greater ability to tailor their instruction to their students, rather than casting a national net and holding everyone to the same standards and curriculum.
Obviously iBooks Author and iPads in schools have not had this effect. Why?
Well, because Chromebooks came out later that year and created a race to the bottom where traditional Keyboard/Mouse/Web based classroom tech got a second wind, instead of allowing schools to move forward and explore new opportunities and possibilities. So now those Chromebooks would be used to go the limited web content supplied by the same old textbooks used by schools all over the country regardless of how relevant they were. Schools now had to consider building rich web sites if they wanted to deploy any custom content, which still had a high barrier of entry, rather than working with a rich, simple to use, WYSIWYG application like iBooks Author (which is now built into Pages.) All I hear from my wife about her Chromebooks are how awful they are, but she keeps buying them for one reason and one reason only, they’re cheaper.
The iPad is slowly reaching it’s price floor, which I estimate to be around $199. Chromebooks could easily fall in price all way down to $49 by using crappier, cheaper parts year after year that give a terrible experience to the students who are forced to use them. The iPad will never be able to be as cheap as Chromebooks. The school only price drop today is not nearly enough to give iPads enough of a grip on the education market to cause any meaningfully change. So for now schools have to compromise on the potential of their students, have to compromise on the privacy of their students by giving them an early presence on one of the largest surveillance companies in the world. The ideas I outlined are still possible, but will be restricted to schools which can afford it. Students like my wife’s, whose school can’t even afford to provide basic educational services they are legally entitled to, will be stuck using Chromebooks for the time being.
Apple’s philosophy here is admirable, and their curricula, “Everyone Can Code” & “Everyone Can Create”, are rich and detailed, but the fact of the matter is that these are not only out of reach of students, but also the teachers who would love to inspire their kids but are crippled by rigorous standards and testing schedules. Apple has great dreams here, but something large will need to change for this dream to be attainable by any significant percentage of our country’s children. The responsibility is on both Apple and schools to create an environment where children can thrive, rather than simply making due with whatever the cheapest solution sold to them is.