Teacher and educator reactions to Apple's iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U

At Apple's education event they announced two initiatives: iBooks 2 and iBooks Author designed to bring textbooks into the digital age, and an all new iTunes U to create and share lesson plans, and follow and complete course work. As education initiatives from publicly traded companies go, they're big and bold -- but they're also just the beginning. There will be struggles and successes, breakthroughs and missteps. And while many of us here at iMore and Mobile Nations could speak about the implications from purely technical and business standpoints, we're lucky to have several teachers and educators, past and present, on staff. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on Apple's new initiatives, specifically and importantly where they impact most -- our kids in the classroom.

Seth Clifford

Apple's move to advance our shamefully archaic system was met with a lot of debate on Thursday morning. On one side, we heard from utopian education advocates (myself included to some degree), extolling the virtues of a centralized e-textbook platform, and Apple's commitment to engaging our youth. On the other hand, I had a few spirited conversations with those who feel that by making great educational opportunities "expensive" (meaning only upper-class schools may even be able to apply these new techniques, leaving inner-city and less-privileged districts behind) Apple has driven a wedge between the haves and the have-nots, making education less democratized and less accessible to all. Personally I feel that both sides have points, but quite honestly, nothing is fair. Education has, in the past decades, grown more and more to be the bastard child of the federal budget, despite the headline-grabbing initiatives that get introduced to fanfare and few results. Kids are taught only to pass tests, so that funding can be applied to districts who have "earned" it. Kids are getting the short end of every stick they see in school, and nothing is changing. And what if Apple's entire move here is not about changing the entire education system, which it most likely understands is irreparably flawed, but rather to disintermediate education the way it did carrier control with the mobile market? What if Apple's ultimate play (with products like iBooks Author) is to put education back in the hands of students (and the actual individuals they interact with on a daily basis), obviating the need for a bloated, antiquated system in much the same way that it saw the carriers as a necessary evil in bringing iOS to the hands of users?

Certainly not every district is hopelessly broken, and not every kid's education suffers at the hands of an ever-shrinking budget. Children who seek out learning will always learn, and those who do not will make their way in the world. It has happened for years and will always be the case, no matter what costs we apply. Apple's attempt to shake up a system so mired in early 20th century standards is merely a shot across the bow of a huge vessel that's been in motion for as long as any of us can remember. It will not be panacea to all the ills of our society, nor should people expect Apple to fix every problem. Apple is a business; they exist to make money and sell merchandise. Those who are decrying its attempts to make learning better are missing the bigger picture. Should we all shun this advance because only rich kids might get a chance to use it at first? Education needs disruption, and all it takes is a cursory look at the developing countries of the world to know that mobile computing is the future for our society. Not everyone will get an iPad or an iPhone, but at some point, everyone will be exposed to learning in a better, mobile capacity, and we'll have Apple to thank for jumpstarting the efforts of those who would sit idly and let our children continue on the endless march to mediocrity.

Seth worked for five years as a computer instructor in a public middle school (grades 6-8), for six years with kids with autism, and was a member of district-wide technology planning committees.

Alli Flowers

All that was missing was the old tagline - this changes everything. Again. In a way it does. But before I explain why I think it might, I must explain why it won't - at least not yet. So I must begin by stating that I take exception with Phil Shiller's comment at the beginning of his presentation when he stated that iPad is, amongst other things, affordable. In today's economy, $500 is just not what I would define as affordable. This thought will temper what follows.

Instead of bridging the digital divide, programs like Apple’s will only serve to deepen the chasm. Is a $15 textbook a great deal? Heck yea! The text I’m supposed to teach from costs $65, and that doesn’t include the workbook. But we hold onto our textbooks for seven years or more. Our school system (the largest in the state), can’t afford to purchase new texts for each subject at the recommended five year increments. Could we afford to purchase iPads for each student instead? It’s doubtful. Besides, even though you would then be looking at a tremendous discount for the textbook (and workbooks would be rolled right into the new format, right?), that’s still a lot of money.

Some of the concerns I’ve often heard about providing all students with iPads include the fear that student iPads will be stolen. I don’t believe this is as big a deal as other factors - if everyone has one, there will be no one left wanting one. The bigger concern is how children take care of their belongings. Most of my students have broken their cell phones at least once. How would we take care of broken iPads? Would we need to spend twice as much as what is needed to cover the student body so that when someone does break (or misplace) his iPad, we can replace it, like we do with a textbook? Can we demand that a family pay to have a $500 iPad replaced, when they can’t currently afford a $65 lost textbook fine?

But I rant. I love the very concept of iBooks Author. The potential here is limitless. For those of us who already prefer using custom content, the possibilities here are limitless. I have not used a textbook this year, and my students haven’t minded at all. I prefer providing them with small lessons and activities on the Smartboard so that they remain engaged, but aren’t overwhelmed. Would I like to give each of my students my custom designed text with practice activities? Heck yea! Do I see it happening any time soon? Probably not. On the other hand, I have an iPad and I can still use this valuable tool. There is no reason I can’t share the screen of my iPad with my students by connecting my iPad to my Smartboard either through an HDMI connection, or by placing the iPad under a document camera. Do I really want all my students touching my personal iPad? Not really. They are not concerned enough with the well being of other people’s property. And if you’re merely showing students the screen of an iPad, you may as well be showing them a traditional textbook. If they’re not the ones using it, the point of it being interactive is lost.

Ahhhhh...interactive textbooks. Again, the concept is brilliant. To have all my videos and exercises (with instant feedback!) in one place is a dream. But it’s a dream for a teacher. I have been lucky enough to both teach and facilitate several distance learning classes over the last three years. Distance classes can be great, and they do what Apple is proposing, but on a computer via a website. The biggest downside is the required Internet connection. The difference in our online course offerings, and the interactive texts presented yesterday by Roger Rosner is small. Each course is packed with links to videos, java games, and Flash activities (that will, no doubt, be replaced by HTML5 activities). Are the students more engaged with the material presented in their online classes? The average student is not. And the below average student simply needs a teacher to fill him with the information one to one. Just yesterday I had a student ask if he had to watch the whole video - referring to a 6 minute video presenting the Industrial Revolution. Really? I cannot believe that students will be more engaged watching a video on the iPad than on a laptop. And digital content won’t be changing for a while.

As a secondary teacher, I cannot speak to iTunes U. However, I have used it for my own professional development several times and love it. I will definitely be using it more often as a stand alone app.

In summary, yes, I love the basic concept of all Apple is doing for education. However, by making it all Apple centered, they are restricting America’s promise of a free and accessible education. The privileged will get Apple products and a better education, and those who can most benefit from a good education will be left out.

Alli is a high school teacher.

Leanna Lofte

I'll admit that the Apple Education Event has left me feeling a little giddy inside. As an educator, interactive textbooks on the iPad, iTunes U on the iPhone and iPad, and iBooks Author all make me very excited.

I've spent a little time in a few textbooks in iBooks and I have been nothing short of impressed. When talk of these interactive textbooks first began to surface, I was concerned that they may not run very well and be a little laggy, but boy was I wrong! Content? Fantabulously engaging! Obviously the text hasn't changed, but textbooks filled with multimedia such as slideshows, videos, 3D diagrams, and quizzes - definitely a game changer.

I teach at a small community college and will be doing everything in my power to get those in charge on board with iTunes U. I am planning to use a website for my courses this semester to post course documents and videos, but iTunes U does it much better than I could on my measly little website.

Last, but definitely not least, I am very excited about iBooks Author. One of my not-so-little lifetime goals is to write a Calculus textbook (yep, I'm that crazy), and iBook Author gives me some hope of actually achieving this goal. I've only spent a little time with the app, but have been able to do so much with it. I plan to actually start writing some mini books to have available for free as supplementary material for my courses. I have a real passion for teaching, and iBooks Author will help me be the better teacher I strive to be.

I know, I sound like a raging fangirl right now, but I truly am excited about all this news. Is it perfect? No. iPads filled with textbooks may not be in the classrooms tomorrow, but the first step to making that a reality has happened. Good job, Apple.

I'm also starting to believe those rumors of low-budget iPads may not be that farfetched after all...

Leanna teaches math at a California college.

Keith Newman

I've been a teacher for 12 years now, and I remember having a hokey tablet PC hooked up to a projector 10 years ago. Apple's move towards the educational experience is breathtaking. I love what I am seeing and feel that the impact of such tools in the classroom is probably what education needs at the moment (besides parents who actually care, but that's a whole other article). Motivation in the classroom is possible with old-school means but let's be honest, retention is at it's all time lowest for this generation. Apple is attempting to speak the "student language" in the classroom for the first time I can remember. It's nice... it's refreshing... it's not going to work.

I'm not trying to be negative, but these tools in the classroom need SERIOUS monitoring. Remote Desktop is a must for me when I have kids in a Lab or have a computer cart; otherwise, it's Twitter and ESPN videos all period long. As of now, there isn't this type of software to overlook iPad carts. It's one thing for a student to not be on the correct page and goof off, that happens everywhere; now we are giving the entire class, whom the majority are doing the right thing, a tool to entice them to not be on the right page.

Cost is also a factor. Yes, I know we aren't getting free iPads. Districts will have to spend that money upfront to save money on the back end. I understand. However... iPads get lost. They get stolen. They get broke. Each one costs the district $500 to replace. Students in my poor, urban school district do not have the money to replace an $80 textbook let alone an iPad.

I want to see this happen. I really do. But realistically it won't happen with Apple prouducts. Their devices have way too much of a markup for this to be economically fesible in an urban school district (that is already in a financial crisis of $629 million dollars). I do see this happening realistically with an OLPC tablet that's not as swanky as Apple's but is far more accessible.

Keith is a high school teacher.

Chris Vitek

As an educator, I am really excited about the potential that eBooks have, along with the interactive potential of having textbooks on an iPad. I am happy that Apple has decided to push the envelope, and I am eager to see college textbooks publishers join in the effort. It looks like Apple has really tried to make the textbooks as interactive, engaging, and as learner-centered as possible, but a lot will depend on how strongly publishers pursue this. While I think there are some hurdles to overcome, I hope that with Apple pushing publishers and authors along it will only get better. I have seen some publisher's attempts at interactive eBooks, and for the most part, they have been disappointing. If publishers and textbook authors can really use the tools Apple has provided, then I think that eBooks may be the future of textbooks. One thing that would be great to see is a teacher's version of the book, that would enable teachers to incorporate the material into teaching lessons (such as putting material in a PowerPoint or Keynote slide).

With iTunes U (which I am sad to say I have never really looked at) it looks like Apple is trying to steal business from Blackboard. I will admit that I have doubts about online learning (I am a little old-school and feel that classroom interaction is an important part of learning). I do use online features to supplement a course, however, and will certainly take a look at iTunes U. I wonder if it can be integrated with school systems so that only registered students can get access to the course (I know our administration won't want to offer all our courses online for free). But it looks like a promising option for online courses and for some course content.

Chris is an assistant professor at a Texas university.