Apple Textbook Controversy Isn’t About Books-It’s About Teaching

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saved in a new file format called .ibooks, which is based on ePub but includes proprietary extensions to make room for multimedia elements like interactive glossaries, 3-D models, JavaScript animations, and Keynote decks. Naturally, .ibooks files only work on iPads. The charge is that Apple is engaged in a classic “embrace, extend, extinguish” campaign to undercut competitors.

Interactivity is vastly oversold. The above-mentioned multimedia elements are quite spiffy, at least compared to the static pages of a paper textbook. At the Guggenheim event, you could see the geeky glow in the eyes of Roger Rosner, Apple’s vice president of productivity applications, as he demonstrated interactive graphics and animations from E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, which Apple is promoting as the flagship iBooks textbook. But skeptics immediately trotted out studies purporting to show that education technology has little or no effect on students’ test scores. While e-textbooks can be updated more easily than traditional textbooks, according to this line of criticism, they don’t engage students more effectively (whatever “engage” means these days).

Textbooks are so 19th-century anyway. The thesis here is that Apple, with iBooks Author and its new publishing alliances, has poured enormous effort into a moribund and increasingly irrelevant medium. Textbooks are, by definition, homogenized and stultifying collections of factoids, written more to suit the specifications of state boards of education than to enlighten students. You can’t make this material exciting just by adding a few multimedia bells and whistles, the argument goes. The real action, say today’s hacker-educators, is in the open educational resources movement, which is all about helping teachers assemble their own textbooks on the fly from free online materials.

Now, there’s a grain of truth in each of these criticisms, and I don’t doubt that they’re all heartfelt. But when the reactions to an innovation are so immediate, shrill, and contradictory, you know that something deeper is going on.

Here’s my take: this is really about macroeconomics and the state of education. Apple is scraping a fork over an exposed nerve. Americans are feeling rattled by years of bad economic news, especially high unemployment rates that are beginning to look permanent. The economic meltdown of 2007-2009 exposed a systemic problem: it’s no longer just low-skilled work that’s fleeing overseas, but also positions requiring serious training, and “those jobs aren’t coming back,” as Steve Jobs famously said to President Obama. People are naturally questioning whether our education system is set up to prepare young people for the jobs domestic firms will need to fill in the future—assuming there are any. (For an extended look at that question, see our recent Xconomist Report on the Future of Education).

In the microcosm of the classroom, this translates into concerns about how to keep kids in school, how to get them hooked on critical subjects like math and science, and how to provide even the most disadvantaged students with the resources they need to have a fair shot at a lifetime of fulfilling employment. And that, in turn, boils down to a longstanding debate about the role of teachers and teaching.

Study after study has shown that the biggest factor determining whether students succeed is the skill and enthusiasm of their teachers. Even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has put billions into equipping schools with better technology, shares in this conclusion. So the question is really whether improved instructional technology such as interactive textbooks can help turn poor teachers into average ones, and help good teachers perform even better. But there’s no clear evidence on that.

There’s not even much agreement about questions like the proper balance between lectures, textbook reading, and other activities. Should a teacher be “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” as one teacher friend of mine puts it? Apple’s promotional videos last week showed a lot of smiling kids using iPads, and very few teachers helping them. The message: iBooks textbooks are so engaging and easy to use that they turn even problem kids into docile, eager learners, helping to make up for classroom overcrowding and all the other challenges schools and teachers face. There’s a lot of hubris and certainty in that vision, at a time when we haven’t settled the big questions about how to fund and structure K-12 education, and when we’re not even sure if learning should be “easy.” I suspect that this is part of what’s got the critics’ blood up.

But there’s a reason for Apple’s hubris. Matthew Battles, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, put it well last week when he said “the company’s visions have an implacable way of turning into givens.” Now that Apple is in the textbook business, there’s no turning back. The heavy old paper textbook is officially a dinosaur. The question is how fast it will disappear from the planet—and which of the striving species lurking in the underbrush will take its place.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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