In depth: Apple's new vision of education

Schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II

Apple has made it clear that one of the next industries it hopes to disrupt and reinvent is education. It's an arena the company has a long history of working with: schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II.

While there have been pilot projects and full-scale deployments of the iPad as an educational tool, you can't say yet that it has truly revolutionized learning. While it's made researching information, viewing video, and working with interactive content more portable and more tactile, for mainstream education, many of those tasks have been available to desktops and laptops in the classroom for a generation.

Now, Apple has clearly set its sights on making the iPad a more fundamental part of the school experience -- and is out to transform that experience in the process.

iBooks 2

The newest version of iBooks offers students of all ages something that's more than the sum of its parts. In many ways, it simply consolidates all the learning tools technology had already brought to the classroom - audio and video, electronic texts, interactive quizzes, searchable indexes and glossaries, and the age-old ability to highlight and notate text for future reference. But, as Apple products often do, iBooks 2 not only consolidates features but pares them back to focus on the actual task at hand: learning.

This is what makes iBooks 2 and the handful of textbooks already available in the iBookstore unique among the many education tools that have come across computer screens over the past 30-plus years. There are features centered around the task of absorbing information, each tackling a subtly different way of learning -- visually through static and interactive graphics, by reading text, and through video clips. In typical Apple fashion, there are no unneeded bells and whistles.

The ability to highlight and take notes right in the text of a digital book is great by itself, and it certainly works better than scribbling in the margins or having to use a separate notebook because someone else will get the textbook during the next school year. Apple kept that feature relatively basic and focused on function. The ability to use notes as study cards is as simple and minimalist as it effective.

Having worked with schools and colleges for a decade as a technology professional, I'm most struck by the fact that no part of the iBooks 2 textbook interface is dumbed down or gimmicky. The experience respects that students are growing up as digital natives and don't need any Fisher-Price styling to learn. Instead, Apple stuck to its core minimalist aesthetic; the result brilliantly lets the content and the lessons take center stage, which makes the act of learning more effective and engaging.

iBooks Author

From my initial experience with Apple's new iBooks Author tool, I can say that the simplicity and effectiveness is astounding. Having worked with teachers and professors to develop digital curriculums (and having prepared and taught such cirriculae myself), iBooks Author makes the process surprisingly painless. While some might compare it to Apple's iWork, the closest analog I see is the company's now defunct iWeb application.

For educators and others interested in self-distribution of ebooks rather than sales through Apple's iBookstore, there's an option to simply export your books. Students and others can then use iTunes on a computer to add the book to their iPad, or it can be sent via email.

While Apple played up the one-click publishing option to the iBookstore, the process does require some legwork before you can get to that single click. As with selling anything in the iTunes Store, the process requires applying for and creating an account to sell through and appears to require that any books be submitted with an ISBN number. It also requires creating a sample version of your book.

If you're considering iBooks Author as a way of self-publishing, you should be aware that Apple's end user license agreement is particularly restrictive. It stipulates that although users can distribute ebooks created with iBooks Author outside of Apple's iBookstore, they can't do so for a fee or as part of subscription service. It also states that Apple will take its standard 30% cut of sales through the iBookstore and reserves the right to deny distribution of ebooks for any reason it sees fit. How Apple will enforce this isn't clear.

It also isn't clear how this will impact sales of the same content packaged outside of iBooks Author. What happens if you use a Word document as the source for both iBooks Author and other tools for distribution to Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook stores, or create a limited print run sold on consignment to independent bookstores?

iTunes U

I've always been a fan of iTunes U. It's a great service for adults looking to informally continue their education and pursue interests and passions. It's also an amazing professional development tool for virtually any career. My biggest complaints have always been that isn't particularly easy to locate specific courses and that the sheer volume of downloaded audio and/or video is massive.

The new iTunes U app addresses those to complaints by offering an iBook-like storefront where you can search, browse, and rate courses and by offering the option of streaming or downloading lectures and related material. In fact, the entire app is very much like iBooks.

The brilliant part of iTunes U's relaunch is that it isn't limited to just lecture recordings. The entire syllabus of a course including assignments, reading material, references, and other easily available resources. That helps put the lecture portions in context and it takes iTunes U from hobbyist tool to being a complete learning and professional development solution. About the only thing this new format doesn't offer is credit for courses that you take (or, more accurately, audit) - though I wouldn't put it past Apple to work with at least one or two universities to offer credit through iTunes U.

So far, only a limited number of courses use all of the potential new features of iTunes U. That said, they are well worth checking out, both to get acquainted with the app and to learn about the topics that interest you. Personally, I can't wait to get started with the Open Yale Astronomy: Frontiers and Controversies course.

All previous iTunes U lectures are also available in the new app. You can easily differentiate lecture-only courses that take full advantage of new iTunes U features by the spiral-bound notebook icon in the iTunes U Catalog, as well as from their descriptions.

For schools and educators interested in creating courses, there's a relatively straightforward application process (which needs to be completed from a school-wide perspective) and a series of web-based creation and management tools.

Can Apple re-invent education?

Apple's new education tools are revolutionary, both in concept and in execution. The question, however, is whether Apple can reinvent how we learn (and teach) just as it changed the music and home entertainment industries or how we think about and use smartphones and other mobile devices.

I can only speak from a US education perspective, but my years of working with public, private and special needs schools -- as well as community colleges and universities -- leaves me a bit skeptical that Apple can pull off an education revolution.

Public school districts in the U.S. will face big challenges trying to turn Apple's vision into reality. Even though some may succeed, there are many that can't -- lagely for financial reasons. School districts across the country are cutting programs, laying off teachers and staff, consolidating classes and even closing schools in an effort to make do with less money. The economy is making it difficult for schools to meet their financial needs through property taxes and with many cities and states facing major budget shortfalls, there may not be enough money for many districts to even contemplate investing in iPads and digital textbooks.

One of the challenges for districts is the need to provide equal access for all students. That means shouldering the burden of investing in iPads and digital textbook copies. There's an argument to be made that in time, they'll save money on replacing textbooks, but many middle and high school subjects are evergreen - algebra and geometry don't change much. Neither do foreign languages. That means those books can be reused year after year and even shared between students.

Then there's the challenge -- even where money is available -- of rolling out new teaching methods and technologies. The revolt among teachers and the teachers' union in Idaho against state-wide technology requirements in the classroom shows the resistance that remains to modernizing teaching in public schools. This issue alone may prove insurmountable in some communities.

There's also the issue of choosing textbooks. That includes not just selecting the texts a district or given teacher wants. There are regulatory issues that involve administration decisions and state-wide requirements when it comes to instructional materials and syllabi.

Implementation, of course, goes beyond just buying the iPads. Schools will also need the IT resources to deploy, manage, and support them. In poorer or rural schools, even on-campus Wi-Fi may not be an option, to say nothing about purchasing a mobile device management solution. IT departments will also need to work hand-in-hand with teachers to get them up to speed and comfortable with using iPads in the classroom.

Even in the most prepared districts, getting all the pieces -- human and technical-- in place and thoroughly tested will take time. Few districts are likely to get everything in place for the next school year. Many would be lucky to even get a pilot project with a handful of teachers and students in place by then.

Overall, Apple may be able to lead the way here, but it's going to be a long process.

Private schools - iPad and digital heaven

Private schools will most definitely have an easier time implementing iPads and digital textbooks. Private schools are funded by tuition and other fund-raising options like private grants, alumni membership fees and donations. Private schools also have the option of setting and requiring that supplies and materials be purchased by the families of students. That option can offset the cost of digital textbooks, and even iPads, if the cost isn't bundled into student tuition.

Private schools also have more operational freedom than public schools. While they still must adhere to government-mandated syllabi, they have a good deal of freedom when it comes to texts, materials and teaching methods to meet those requirements and are free to include their own additional curricula.

This means there will be far fewer barriers to entry when it comes to Apple's vision of digital learning. It also means that teachers have more flexibility in structuring lessons and more opportunities for professional development. And that should help ease a transition to the iPad and digital textbooks, as well as encourage creation of class and school-specific resources like textbooks and iTunes U programs.

Higher Education

Although Apple included the new iTunes U app in this week's announcement, there was little focus on higher education. This may be in part because technology use in higher education is a different ballgame than in K-12 schools. Students are expected to provide their own devices and manage them and their course work themselves.

While there is certainly a place in colleges and universities for digital textbooks, a much broader selection of texts and reference sources is available to faculty members, who often devise their own syllabus, lectures, assignments and materials. The iBookstore isn't likely to deliver the same cost advantage at colleges as it might for high school students. Even with partnerships with the major textbook vendors, Apple may not be able to keep costs down to acceptable levels. Indeed, a recent study in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that electronic texts don't generate significant cost savings to students.

That said, both iBooks Author and the ability to create and manage an iTunes U course have a lot of potential for higher education. In particular, the ability to distribute ebooks that are class-specific and private to a department or school may be particularly attractive.

It's also worth noting that Apple faces different competition in the higher education textbook arena, including college bookstores.

Continuing ed and professional development

As noted earlier, iTunes U is an amazing resource for adult learners and people looking to update or advance existing professional skills. For them, the revamped iTunes U is a potential goldmine. The combination of lectures, texts and related resources will give anyone access to a classroom experience. The new face of iTunes U also benefits Apple in that supporting material like books, apps and audiovisual content will be available though its various storefronts.

Lifelong learning may be one of the most incredible and yet easily overlooked achievements in Apple's vision of 21st century education. The company is making all of this learning content and tools available to virtually anyone, anywhere and at impressively low costs.

While Apple's education efforts will directly or indirectly affect how future generations learn as they grow up, perhaps the biggest feat is removing barriers to knowledge and supporting multiple learning styles from childhood through adulthood.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

Join the Computerworld newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about Amazon Web ServicesAppleetworkFisher-PriceNobleTopic

CIO
ARN
Techworld
CMO