Apple and the online education revolution

Yesterday’s Apple event on education reflects current trends in computerized learning. So what has Apple introduced?

iBooks textbooks

iBooks textbooks are interactive ebooks. How do textbooks profit from going digital? They can provide more content (photos, texts, etc.), videos (to give a better impression of dynamic phenomena), interaction (move around in a diagram, zoom in, bring up more details, etc.), and better navigation (search). Furthermore, they will be continually updated. However, these new abilities do not magically transform bad textbooks into good ones. You still need capable authors. A well written paper textbook easily trumps a badly written digital one. iBooks textbooks still seem to be largely linear; more could probably be done with regard to adapting the content to the ability of the student.

Study cards are an interesting innovation: Each text passage that you highlight is turned into a virtual index card, to which you can add a note. The front of the card shows the highlighted text, the back shows the note and definitions of glossary terms. There are several colors available for highlighting. You can shuffle cards and review only those with a given highlight color. The nice thing about them is that you don’t lose context – you can go back to the location of a highlight and will thus learn the excerpt as part of the book. Hand-written index cards don’t provide that advantage as readily.

The file format. Baldur Bjarnason has looked at the file format and describes it as follows:

Apple’s new format is mostly ePub3. It has valid NCX and OPF files. The XHTML files are all XHTML5. It uses SVG extensively.
However, there are also numerous non-standard mechanisms, such as the mimetype of the file, the CSS that is used, etc. It seems like Apple’s user interface approach to specifying many things in absolute pixel coordinates is applied here, too.

iBooks Author

iBooks Author has been described as “Garage Band” for digital textbooks. It’s a free Mac app. Providing it for free and making it easy to use is a smart move – currently, producing interactive ebooks is either impossible or much work. iBooks Author can import Word documents, Keynote presentations and web content. I like that it has accessibility built in. An important, yet uncommon consideration.

Possible improvements. The produced content is split into pages. That makes some things easier. An alternative is to create one long page per content unit and let users scroll that unit continuously. That would have the advantage of being adaptable to various screen sizes. Current iBooks Author content is intimately tied to the iPad’s screen size.

If an iBooks textbook is created via Author – which is likely the only option for doing so – its creator can set a price of up to $14.99. Furthermore, Apple gets a 30% cut (which is the usual fee for ebooks).

iTunes U

iTunes U used to be a section on the iTunes store, with podcasts containing class material. It has now been turned into an iOS app (iPad, iPhone, iPod touch). Course material can include: Audio and video, Presentations, Documents, PDFs, iBooks Textbooks for iPad, ePub books, iOS apps, Web links. Assignments are also supported. iTunes U uses iCloud to sync your progress between devices. The course material is assembled via a web-based tool. It’s great to see that there is a lot of free content available. Quoting Jordan Golson on MacRumors:
Course materials are hosted by Apple and available to anyone taking the course – by default, courses are open and available to anyone, though it appears schools can restrict their courses to only their students.
The “Apple approach”. iTunes U is the embodiment of the “Apple aproach”: using apps instead of web technology. The advantage is that usability can be maximized and tailored to specific screen sizes. The disadvantage is that only a limited amount of devices will be supported (note that neither iBooks nor iTunes U is available for the Mac) and that sharing is limited. Furthermore, web browsers have certain user interface innovations (bookmarking, history, ...) that Apple still hasn’t been able to match with its apps (specifically, the iTunes store app).

The online education revolution

Recent months have seen tremendous growth in online class offerings. Friends of mine in Germany took a Stanford online class on AI and dedicated significant time per week to it; they even handed in assignments. That is an ideal way of making great classes available to a broader audience, especially to poorer people. The idea of forming local groups while following a class gives you back the social aspect of a university. This kind of decentralized, less formal gathering is reminiscent of coworking which is an answer to the loneliness of telecommuters. You can expect universities to increasingly become (just) certifiers for online classes that they provide. Lastly, social features are also bound to become more popular in educational software – another way of staying connected in a decentralized manner. One more online education idea that stood out for me recently is Duolingo [1] – it provides free language classes and uses the work done by participants to translate texts.

Clearly, Apple wants to participate in the online education revolution, partly for altruistic reasons, partly to make money and stay relevant. It will be interesting to see how Apple’s approach of apps for a proprietary platform plays out against the open web.


  1. Duolingo: using free online language lessons to translate texts