Textbooks and eBooks and iBooks… Oh My!

February 28, 2012

What this post is about

Some (very late) initial thoughts on the uses and applications of iBooks and the idea of iBook development for instructional designers.

What this post is not about

This is not a detailed discussion on technical capabilities or creative development using iBooks.

Here is a summary

This post is part 2 of a 2-part posting about Apple’s iBooks. In this post, I want to record my initial reaction (as a learning design professional) to Apple’s iBook technology.

Here begins the post

Well, here they are. The much rumoured iBook Textbook. Apple’s latest addition to education using technology. Together with podcasting, iTunes university and other initiatives, these will change the shape of education, and the use of technology in education.

What are iBooks? iBooks are a software implementation for the iPad that allow developers to create interactive, rich media text books. Apple have released the code for developing iBooks for free, but of course development and use of the final product requires an Apple product.

Why do I make such grand claims about their dominance? From a technical point of view, the key to successful instructional design is to get people to work with/explore/use and process information. This post (Pulse Learning) says it very efficiently, so I link to it for economy’s sake.  Quite often, there are constraints to using technology to teach anything. You want to make the experience as rich and effective and efficient as possible. Quite often, information may need to be truncated – to keep it to the point. Perhaps all the information is provided within the scope of a course.  But within a specific topic, it may be isolated, modular, away from its natural environment (that being related concepts or important things to consider).

The iBook offers various methods for allowing the highly interactive content to be deployed, while also providing a full account of the information. Learners don’t just read text.

They can be encouraged to interact with the concepts being communicated:

  • Watch engaging/entertaining video (that might take 2 minutes to consume), rather than read dense and complex text about the relationships between things
  • Play with interactive graphs to see how adjusting X will affect Y
  • Take and keep notes directly from the text, which are then available as note cards, which help with things like revision (for students) or quick “just in time” support/reminders (for those learning work skills).
  • 3D images will also help to make text books more interesting to read.

All of this contributes to a better learning experience and the possibility of maintaining learner attention for longer than the normal 20-30 minutes of self study.

Is it all good? Well, I do have some issues…
One key market they are targeting are schoolchildren. This makes sense when one considers the size/weight of the average school bag. However, as a parent I can tell you there are several issues arising from the prospect:

  • It is an unequal world. Will children whose parents cannot afford an iPad be left behind?
  • It is an imperfect world. I wouldn’t trust my child to look after a €5 (or $5 or £5) radio and not break it. What about a €400+ device? If they (and my kids will) break their “school iPad”, what happens? Am I spending €400+ everytime they break one? Get insurance? Sure – but then they break their iPad so often,I’m probaby paying for another iPad a year anyway.

I have heard the arguments that text books are as expensive, but I don’t know whether they stretch to this cost. Furthermore, printed books can be handed down to younger children, bought/sold second hand, etc. In short, there are various factors that will mitigate the cost of text books, but these are not so easy to find for the iPad.
It is an impractical world.  (Update – please see comment below)Not every school will have a PC/Mac to load these iPads with content. Will parents need a computer? What about those who don’t quite understand the requirements of such technology (I know of someone who got an iPod, but didn’t realise they needed a computer to load content onto it). Will parents need computers and WiFi?

Why Am I So Down On This All of a sudden?
I’m not down on it at all. The first thing that does strike me is that it is a shame such a technology could not be provided in an open source model (or perhaps even the One Laptop Per Child model). Using cheap but effective technology and open source software could bring down the cost of developing and purchasing the technology. Furthermore a OLPC model could aslo have tablet computers with iBooks sent to developing countries. In short: Apple cannot be blamed for doing a good job. It is a shame that it cannot be more open and available, but Apple cannot be blamed for not being a charity.

On balance, iBooks are a definite step forward in education and the use of technology in education.

For instructional designers, I offer a tentative SWOT analysis for instructional designers in the use of iBook technology

There are many strengths in the iBook model.

  • The deployment of rich-media, engaging learning content makes everyone happy
  • One device (rather than many books) is very compelling. I worked on projects in the past where people took eLearning courses to learn about a technology, but then brought manuals to work sites where they might need them. They would need a specific workbook for a specific worksite, depending on the technology installed. An iBook textbook means all of this can be kept in one portable device.
  • Moreso, they can become a one-stop-shop for learning and reference. (Imagine reading Ullyses with a guide/dictionary/notes all built in so you aren’t grappling for the back of the book or another book – you simply tap to bring up the information you may want immediately). As an example of an adult-learner, imagine a technician having the full manual, as well as troubleshooting guides and interactive guides explaining the concepts behind a technology altogether? They can find and use the specific information they require in seconds. This could help speed up processes, especially for rarer problems people face. Similar arguments could be made in medicine (reference guides, diagnostic practices, photos of symptoms could all be provided in one place, on one sleek device), sales (product references, user guides, application guides, price points, etc.).
  • (Possibly) Automatic revision? I am unsure of this, but if iBook Textbooks are built on the app model, a publisher could keep the content in their texts up-to-date in a much quicker, much more effective method, pushing new updates so their learners/users will always be confident they have the most up-to-date information.  This could completely disrupt the textbook model, with purchasers taking a “Subscription” to a text book for core content and updates.

From an instructional design point of view, some educational technology is missing from iBook textbooks.

  • Ability to network/use forums or social media
  • Quizzes to help learners monitor their progress through a subject
  • the development of interactive scenarios

These are all regulalry used to enrich the learning experience at all levels (from school children to young and even more advance adult learners.

Perhaps this is on the horizon? Is it conceivable that someone else has already thought of this and could be developing an Android equivalent?
For instructional designers, this may mean we cannot extend/develop our learning content to the full extent that we might want. (From my own personal point of view, scenario/quiz based learning is very important). On the other hand, there could be great challenges in using the core functionality to mock things such as quizzes and scenarios (for example, if there is a function to jump to a specific page/point). However, without a dedicated quiz engine, any workaround would still lack key functionality, or make that functionality too clumsy to mock up (consider a question with several options, individual feedback for each, as part of a quiz of several questions, with feedback at the end of the quiz… that’s going to be complex)


There are obvious opportunities immediately available. Apple hook up with some publishing companies to provide a massive library of content. Their success with iTunes and the music industry would indicate that a development roadmap will be full for quite some time, and libraries of content will be released in time.
For instructional designers, this could mean opportunities within more traditional publishing houses to help them develop/redevelop a huge amount of texts into more engaging and interactive content. Whether publishing houses would go for this is anyone’s guess. I would imagine there will be a critical mass – once X number of publishers are on board, the rest may have to follow to stay relevant.

I think the biggest threat could be the model itself. Again, price is going to be a problem for many people. This might mean someone else comes along to develop an Android equivalent using cheaper hardware and OS. But then will instructional designers have to deal with development from 2 differnet operating systems (and hardware setups)?

As it is, one will need to buy a Mac to develop iBook Textbooks – which is a costly prospect to say the least.

With any technology for eLearning development, there is also the threat of instructional designers becoming lazy. You could get away with a lot of content that looks very good, but is instructionally poor if you don’t keep in mind the fundamentals of your profession. There is no inherent design/development process – this is the value you add as an instructional designer. You will still need to deal with SMEs, designers, project managers and clients. You will still be responsible for ensuring that learners using the finished contnet will learn – will achieve the objectives set out for that content.
Another threat could be that many people decide they *only* want iBook textbooks content, disregarding a lot of other content that could be more engaging/useful for learners. Without quiz/scenario based learning, this would degrade the quality of your learning product even further. Unless you could somehow hook the textbook up to an LMS, where learners could go for testing/scenarios. While this could work, it seems quite clumsy given that you’re using such a sleek model to deploy your content in the first place.


I have no doubt that the iBook Textbook is going to make serious waves – not just in school/college education, but in further education, CPD and ongoing requirements for those who work in industries where information is constantly being updated, or where typical responsibilities will often require a small library of content for reference. I myself am looking to save for a Mac for the express purpose of being ready, should (and when) the revolution hits full throttle.


One Response to “Textbooks and eBooks and iBooks… Oh My!”

  1. Brendan Strong said

    An Update:
    Christopher Christensen over on Linkedin has pointed out that a computer is not a requirement to load content onto an iPad. Although, there is an issue in relation to wifi/internet access. I have struck out the original point in the main text.

    Futher, Christopher pointed out that the iBook Author software is free (but Mac only). I thought I had included this point, but it must have been deleted before I hit the Publish button.

    Christopher also makes the point that this means teachers could create their own text books. Another very compelling argument in their favour: who will know a classes learning style better than their teacher (or for adult education, a teams learning style better than their trainers/training manager)?

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