On 19th January, 2012, a strange aura seemed to be flowing around the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The peculiar hint of a feverous energy seemed to have been instilled among the legions of tech-journalists assembled there; the kind of energy that is generally the trademark aftershock of a press event by the tech-mammoth, Apple. Superfluous hyperbole aside, this was the day when Apple announced a major update to the ‘iBooks’ e-reading software on their industry beating tablet computer, the iPad. This update brought with it support for the consumption of textbooks, to be used by students in schools and colleges across the world. This update was accompanied by the inclusion of textbook authoring software, called ‘iBooks Author’ for the Mac, as well as a dedicated iOS app for iTunes U, their education hub software for universities.
It was a brazen attempt at revolutionizing an industry that has remained stagnant for eons now, yet it left one with conflicting emotions. Both, the idea behind their initiative as well as its implementation were astounding. The books were beautiful, well thought out and made with a polish that we have come to expect from Apple, yet they also brought along with them another quality that we’ve come to expect from the company: a closed ecosystem.
The future of text books?
Don’t get me wrong, iBooks will probably be hugely successful and earn Apple boatloads of cash, but as far as enhancing the learning experience for students all across the globe is concerned, it would not be the huge leap that one might expect it to be. Yes, textbooks need to change, they’re heavy, they’re outdated, and they’re stagnant as far as technology is concerned, but students everywhere in the world cannot afford to buy an iPad. By limiting iBooks to the iPad, Apple is potentially fragmenting the whole global education scenario into students that have an iPad and those that don’t! This leaves the market ripe for Google, Samsung and other tech giants of their ilk to come up with their own proprietary standards and further convolute the system.
What we need is something that can become the standard for digital education and replace the archaic concept of textbooks, once and for all, not half baked attempts from different companies that most likely will not work together. Imagine not being able to share notes with a classmate, because you have an iPad and he or she has an Android tablet! It would provide further roadblocks on the already slippery slope of education.
Suppose Apple had made a dedicated reading device to go along with iBooks, a cheap device that was limited to only being able to access the textbooks and only had the bare essentials when it came to hardware. This device would not be made available for the consumer market, but could be issued to educational institutions at subsidized prices. That way, every student would have the same tools to work upon, plus it would make business sense as well, as Apple would still be making a lot of money from the books it would be selling. It would also act as a major motivator for students in developing countries to attend school and learn on what appears to them to be a mystical device. Imagine the excitement of students in rural areas, right here in India at having such an aspirational product to play around with and learn from!
Digital versus real world education tools
Digital learning is a highly promising field and it promises great returns, if implemented correctly. Digital textbooks, like iBooks would free students from the burden of lugging around bags weighing way more than they should, to school every day, they would also completely revamp the method of the consumption of education with interactive learning tools, while also forcing textbook publications to update their content before converting to a new format. Unfortunately, Apple has left a lot to be desired, as far as the distribution of their textbooks is concerned, but they have been successful in ushering in this new wave and getting people excited about education again. I just wish they had done it right.
You can connect with Harshit Passi on Twitter @hrshtpassi