iAuthor: mind over machine

Apple’s announcement today of their entry into the on-line textbook market is generally being greeted by educationalists – and the media – all over the world as an exiting, positive move forward, even though in many cases it will be some years before all their students actually have iPads, let alone iPad textbooks. Educational publishing is indeed an industry in need of disruption – but has Apple got it right?

Now before continuing I had better state that I earn most of my living writing, editing and designing educational resources, so I’m not exactly neutral on this matter!

The original vision was that Apple would employ the best textbook writers to create content that would then be provided for free. That I would have no problem with, but it now seems the reality is that it’s more of a collaboration with existing educational publishers. And as such it’s certainly not going to be free! At the same time, Apple probably doesn’t realise is that over the past ten years the educational publishing industry has been severely squeezed: author’s royalties have been reduced, permanent editorial and design staff have been laid off, and marketing budgets slashed. As a result, the overall quality of many textbooks is now less good than it was in the 1990s. Although of course for the publishing industry the potential savings of an eBook in terms of paper, printing and distribution – which make up the main cost of a book – will be substantial.

The fact is that as a result most of today’s existing textbooks may be filled with facts and figures and the occasional photo, but the quality of authorship, editing, layout and illustration and overall pedagogy is generally poor. Text is often a jumble of unstructured knowledge, understanding and activity and lacking in clarity and conciseness. Artwork is cheap, and usually not that cheerful. The imperative to turn the page to find out what happens next is rarely evident.

Meanwhile  the majority of multimedia CD’s and websites produced over the past ten years are little better, if not in many cases worse. With a few notable exceptions, adding novelty animations, confusing navigational routes and electronically marked multiple choice questions has done little to improve the quality of learning. A well prepared, easily digestible ‘static’ text together with closely related and skillfully executed artwork and photographs can be just as ‘engaging’, if not more so, than any so-called multimedia interactive experience. The most important interaction needs to be with the mind, not the machine.

Ah – but then there’s the new iBooks Author. So now teachers will find it easy to publish their own resources -assuming of course they have the time, and a Mac with the very latest version of OSX.  Great. I expect some will even be quite good. But the rest will be rubbish. Ask any educational publisher and they’ll tell you that most unsolicited submissions from teachers are little more than photocopied worksheets or bullet-point Powerpointless presentations they’ve produced for their own classes, which may work well when they are present to fill in the gaps, but don’t make a lot of sense when they are not. And the fact that the provided templates look like more of a glorified, unimaginative and corporate Word file isn’t going to help. The initial titles appear to be a long way from being any sort of ‘magical experience’ that today’s highly media-literate children are going to get very thrilled about.

Maybe the real breakthrough that would really make a difference would be a suitable Help! file entitled ‘How to prepare a high quality educational resource‘?

So Apple’s announcements today have not made me go ‘Wow!’. They do little more than automate the existing idea of a traditional textbook or a multimedia CD. Where is the integration with social networking, the access to collaborative learning and on-the-fly e-portfolios? In its present format I don’t see them having a substantial or disruptive impact on educational publishers, or on the way teachers teach and learners learn. It’s yet another case of New technology: old learning. Let’s hope future upgrades are more adventurous and herald real change.