Apple is decisively positioning itself to take the education market by storm. This is clearly evident from their website (http://www.apple.com/education/ipad/), “The device that changed everything is now changing the classroom.” This movement could be felt earlier, but it became a stated mission when the company introduced the iBooks Authoring tool in January of 2012. At this moment Apple placed the muscle of its publishing and distribution network in the hands of educators interested in creating their own material for the classroom. By material, I mean textbooks. And by creating textbooks, teachers / professors / educators everywhere have the power to make an endrun around one of the most dominant, top-down forces in education: the textbook publishers.
For years textbook publishers have been dictating what material is taught nationwide. On one hand, this is no problem, teachers need a resource that provides content, support, lesson organization, etc. On the other, given a limited number of textbook publishers, teachers are bound to follow conventions set by very few people. And those people (the publishers) are bound by the market. And when I say ‘the market,’ I mean Texas and California.
Because of their size, these two states play outsized roles in determining what textbooks are used throughout the country. Being large states with high populations they are the largest purchasers of textbooks for public schools in America. This means that textbooks publishers bend to the market forces operating in these states. Where this becomes a problem is that these forces actually transform the content of the books. It may seem that history is history, math is math, etc. But anyone who has read The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn knows that history is told by the winners and can be presented very differently by different people. For instance, states that had one time been a part of the union teach the civil war as being a war over slavery; states that had once been part of the confederacy refer to it as a war concerning states’ rights. These are both accurate statements, but they mean two very different things.
The effect of these market forces has documented in decades of publications on the topic, appearing in education journals and even a multipart series in the Baltimore Sun by Mike Bowler back in 1976. The question raised by many of these publications is, “should the content of textbooks be subjected to the same forces as those for cola and breakfast cereal?” That is, is the content of educational material a matter of taste?
This could easily be another article, but this topic has been reviewed many times elsewhere.* However, with the introduction of the iBook Authoring tool, Apple places the power to do something novel in the hands of educators. Teachers and Professors have been providing supplementary handouts and packets to their students for years. With this new app, they can now consolidate these supplemental materials into a single professional document for digital (or .pdf print) distribution.
But a funny thing happens once you start putting all this material together. You realize that you may be well along the road to creating your own textbook that is perfectly tailored to your own syllabus. Then you start wondering what that other book is really offering that yours is not.
I can’t promise that iBooks will revolutionize education, but I can say that it has revolutionized my own approach to providing materials to my class and that what used to be a packet of handouts is quickly becoming a rich multimedia document that looks an awful lot like a textbook. So, how much longer will the textbooks be the centerpiece of my students’ focus for my class? I can’t say yet – we’re only about to start my first semester. I’ll be sure to write more about how it goes though, so check back here later in the Fall 2012 semester and see.
1.“Textbook Publishers Try to Please All, but First They Woo the Heart of Texas” Mike Bowler, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Feb., 1978), pp. 514-518.
2.“Textbook Publishing” Gilbert Sewall; Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 86, 2005