Apple’s disappointingly low-interaction iBooks (pending custom widgets, activity logging)

Apple held a much-anticipated education event today in NYC, and I’m mostly disappointed though not without hope. If I were really cynical, I’d say they’ve made a deal with the big publishers that will benefit both of their businesses without really benefitting the end users. But I’m not that cynical. My gripe is with the potential for interactive engagement (buzzword alert) that might be lost on this new etextbook platform depending on the mysterious side door that is the custom widget. What interactive engagement means in the context of ebooks is perhaps unclear, so this is where I will start.

The Meaning of Interactive

To compare whether Apple’s new platform for electronic textbooks is really revolutionary on the interactivity front, we need to remember that the copy of Physics by Halliday & Resnick (3rd Ed.) on my bookshelf is not exactly a hunk of basalt. It’s at least interactive in the following way: it has cover art, lots of different pages, and I can freely flip through them in any order I want to. And it has pictures, or at least diagrams, which convey things to me that are hard to do with text alone. Some of the text is bold or highlighted in some way, and I own the book so I’m free to write notes in it if I want to.

My iPad is way cooler than my copy of Halliday & Resnick; the color is nice and bright and I can have thousands of textbooks stored in it. But if all those textbooks do is flip pages, show pictures and take my notes, I would not say the interactivity has been substantially upgraded.

The first level of interaction is being able to see content that is richly dynamic and to change that content, albeit in a limited way. Watching videos and animations, zooming in and out of or rotating an image, turning on and off parts of a diagram or switching between multiple display modes–all of these are interactivity level one. It’s nice that these are part of the iBook experience, but it’s really the least you can do.

Interactivity 2.0 means being able to change things in a meaningful way, like moving a bunch of objects around and seeing what happens to their state as a result or writing in your own equation and seeing it graphed as a mathematical curve. Interactive web graphics, apps and games have multiple knobs and gesture-based controls with exciting outcomes that can keep you busy for several minutes or hours, not ten seconds flipping through mode 1 through 5.

Here’s an example taken from life not from the page: Imagine you moved into my house and I showed you to your new room and said, look you can do whatever you want in here, ahem, you can view your room from multiple angles, you can lie down in that bed there, and you can turn the lights on and off. That’s interactivity level 1 and not really all that generous. It’s a far cry from saying you can replace the carpet, move the furniture in, out and around, play music, cover the walls with faux fur, install your own disco lighting and change the window treatments. That’s Interactivity.

Of course the two levels I just sketched are arbitrary demarcations, because interactivity is really measured on a continuum that is a function of how rich a feedback experience you get from the interaction. And it seems to me that Apple’s current offering is rather limited.

I took a peek at the free sample of the only physics textbook in the new store. It’s a digital version of Glencoe Physics: Principles and Problems by Zitzewitz et al., which is actually a pretty good textbook. I even ordered it for my ninth grade class when I was teaching full time. The free sample chapter is Vibrations and Waves, and it is full of pseudo-interactive figures like one on pendulum motion, which is really a three-stage figure with some transitional frames to “animate” it. Can you pull the pendulum and release it? No. Can you change the mass or length of rope or constant of gravity to see what effect each has on the period of oscillation? No. In fact this figure, like all of the interactive figures, is more frustrating than informative because your natural tendency is to try to make things happen that you just can’t. (If after reading this, you’re dying to play with a virtual pendulum, you can use the truly interactive PhET simulation).

I don’t believe this is just a shoddy job on McGraw-Hill’s part. The iBooks Author application imports interactivity through the following set of widgets: Gallery (multiple images you can flip through), Media (video), Review (multiple-choice-type questions), Keynote (for graphs and data, presumably), 3D (image is rotatable with the touch interface) and Interactive Image. Interactive Image means you can select parts of the image which, when clicked on, will zoom the view and maybe show a bubble of text.

You’re not going to get past level one interactivity with them tools. But here’s the rub. Supposedly you can author your own widgets with javascript. I will need to see more, but this gives me hope for the next level interactivity, because I’ve seen wonderfully interactive web graphics using AJAX/javascript/jQuery. If iBooks Author can really incorporate that functionality, I may become a believer yet.

Not interactivity, but the next big thing in education

One feature that I doubt will be possible with iBooks2 is activity logging, and that’s a shame. Activity logging is one way that educational web services learn what students really do given the opportunity, how much time they spend with different features, and—in the best possible integration of learning resources with formative assessment—how that interaction has affected their learning. This information is used to keep improving the resources in a feedback loop that makes things better for everyone and faster than the typical revision cycle. And the data can also be useful to teachers, who can subsequently supplement the offerings in ways the textbook cannot. Some people get privacy concerns about activity logging, but it can be done safely and anonymously. If you think of those bug reports your computer is shooting off to Apple or Microsoft (assuming you give your permission), you can see one simple case in point.

In sum, Apple’s small step falls way short of the potential for interactive online educational tools, but it safeguards a certain proprietary model for publishing, which makes it palatable to educational behemoths. That’s a sound business move. If custom widgets open the door to real interactivity then it will also be a boon for students and independent learners. But unless it grows to include activity logging and meaningful assessment, this new platform will soon be supplanted by higher quality web-based services which will be just as accessible from mobile devices and even more useful for students and teachers.

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