How much will digital textbooks shake up education?

iBooks AuthorThis blog was originally published by The Guardian on 18th February 2012.

I am going to admit something right now: I am a bit of a fan of Apple products. I have a MacBook, an iPhone and an iPad 2 and always look forward to the next announcement to come out of Cupertino. When I heard that the keynote speech last month would involve an education-based announcement, I was particularly excited – there was a lot of talk on the web around the idea of digital textbooks and I was intrigued as to what the company had come up with.

For once, the internet buzz had got it right. Apple announced iBooks 2, digital textbooks and iBooks Author. I tracked down the keynote video onYou Tube and it was a typical Apple promotional video: cheesy and packed with the usual spin but undoubtedly exciting and well made. My initial thought was that this could change everything. I immediately downloaded Life on Earth so I could see for myself.

So what does a digital textbook look like? Well, fantastic, on the evidence of LoE. Opening with an inspiring, attention-grabbing video, it is incredibly immersive. The content is excellent with plenty of text and images. There are more videos to watch, imbedded interactive Keynote presentations and a quiz at the end of the second chapter. It was certainly a very satisfying experience and I would have loved to have had one of these when I was at school many moons ago. Could digital textbooks be the future?

Many students dislike having to carry around piles of heavy books – in fact sometimes they dislike doing it so much they purposely leave them at home! Digital textbooks would make this a problem of the past. Students would only need to bring an iPad to school, something that many are doing anyway in some educational institutions.

Another big problem with textbooks, as we all know, is that they are often out of date as soon as they are printed but going digital would negate the need to constantly purchase the most up-to-date physical version of a text. With Apple’s latest technology, textbooks can be revised via an update in iBooks. This has got to be a good thing.

For me, though, the most exciting part of this announcement was the release of iBooks Author. This is available for free via the Mac App store. It allows Mac users to create their own interactive books and submit them to the iBookstore or share them with other iPad users. This could afford teachers the ability to build interactive schemes of work for students to download, I thought; to create immersive training resources or personalised school textbooks in a quick and easy way.

Unfortunately, it is not all good news and there are some obvious drawbacks.

Digital textbooks and books created using iBooks Author can only be viewed on the iPad. This could be a bit shortsighted by Apple, mainly because the tablet is an unarguably expensive bit of kit and many students and schools will not be able to afford them. Schools are already struggling with their budgets and iPads will not be top of the list of things to buy. This may lead to a technological gap between schools.

The second problem is the amount of hard drive space these books use. Life on Earth is a near-1GB download and that’s just for two chapters. The complete volume could take up most of a 16GB iPad: not a lot of good when you want to buy several textbooks.

Finally, there is the issue with the iBooks Author end-user license agreement. It’s quite a hefty topic to discuss fully here and in itself is probably another blog for another day but I would certainly advise you to read this article on I am not sure how I feel about this aspect of Apple’s announcement but it is certainly causing some controversy.

Is this really the digital revolution that Apple would lead us to believe? Or is simply an update of CD-ROM textbooks on an expensive mobile device? Is this something students will buy into or am I looking at it from the perspective of someone who grew up without mobile proliferation and Google?

What do you think? Please share your opinions and thoughts on digital textbooks and iBooks Author in the comment field on this blog.