iBooks Textbooks: Not Exactly Innovation in Education

Posted by steve on Jan 23, 2012 in international, New Zealand, News, Reviews, Software, Software Reviews

No iPhone 5, no iPad 3, no update to the Mac Pro range, at Thursday’s Apple education event in New York. No, the innovations Apple were unwrapping at the Guggenheim were altogether more surprising.

Claiming to “re-invent the textbook,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for Worldwide Marketing, portrayed Apple as a crusader for educational innovation, and announced a new product range that, according to one of the talking-head teachers roped in to shill for iBooks textbooks, would “change my students’ lives for the better.”

This was intended to be, clearly, a spectacular advance, a leap forward in educational technology that would disrupt, innovate, surprise, delight; certainly, for me, a technology commentator, and a teacher since 1991, this should have been a revolutionary innovation. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

A company such as Apple should, surely, have the potential not simply to embellish and enhance the textbook as it exists in its current paradigm; they should have it in them, especially if they are to have the hubris to claim that they are “reinventing” the textbook, to introduce something utterly radical, something that turns the current understanding of the textbook utterly on its head.

Instead, Apple’s presentation should have been fronted by Rod Serling. I was watching the thing on a fast, powerful, modern laptop computer — an Apple MacBook Pro with a quad-core Intel processor, accessing fast Internet over a wireless connection, and downloading the new product as it was announced onto an Apple iPad — a tablet computer! — at the same time. And yet, and yet… what was being shown off, what was touted as a reinvention of the textbook, belonged back in the mid 1990s.

An iBooks textbook, we were promised, would be interactive. Interactivity in content has been a fundamental aspect of computer-aided delivery for as long as we’ve had CD-ROMs — I updated my Mac IIsi to a IIvx back in 1995 because I really wanted the CD-ROM drive, and immediately started playing with multimedia titles that were starting to appear. And what made these titles attractive was the fact that they could build on simple static text, offering, as it was known then, a multimedia experience — video, animation, audio.

This was, as I say, seventeen years ago — around the time some of the target audience of the iBooks textbooks were born. In those seventeen years, computer-mediated instructional materials (“textbook” is such an old-fashioned word) should, surely, have moved on. But what I find on my iPad today, in 2012 (for, at least, as long as iBooks 2 is usable; my experience so far is that it’s as unstable as a hippo on rollerskates) is an experience that, other than being on my ever-so-modern tablet computer, is, essentially, the same as that offered by multimedia CD-ROMs back in the early 90s.

It is true that iBooks textbooks offer a level of engagement that paper books are unable to match, and there is definitely evidence to suggest that novelty in presentation, especially when that novelty involves computers, will, at least temporarily, reduce affective barriers to learning. I know — I did some of the research as a graduate student, again back in the mid 1990s. But those years also saw an incipient movement to take the possibilities offered by computers to personalise and individualise the learning experience offered by technology and exploit the platforms available even fifteen years ago.

At a language-teaching conference in Japan in, I believe, 1999 or 2000, I listened to a presentation on adaptive language testing, a system that tested, observed student performance, and then selected the next instruction-testing sequence based on that performance. While this was, at that point, a somewhat rudimentary application of the principles involved, it at least showed that computers were able to make decisions on what to do next based on what had preceded that decision. iBooks 2 offers no such flexibility, as far as I can tell so far.

Partly this is due to the fact that iBooks textbooks are a product of iBooks Author, itself essentially the love child of of iWork’s Pages and Keynote. Absent, so far, are any programming tools, even simple ones, that can allow any form of data-storing scripting, which is a shame, since programs such as FileMaker Pro, SuperCard, even HyperCard (of sainted memory) allow solutions to be created that allow a degree of decision-based scripting. Had Apple incorporated such elements into iBooks Author, a whole new level of interactivity and personalised learning could have been generated: “Steve, I see you’re spending a lot of time on simple harmonic motion, but you’re not doing very well on the end-of-topic quiz. Would you like some extra help with this topic?” But while the student can interact with the content, the content remains unable to interact with the student, and this seems to be an opportunity badly missed; I can only hope that scripting will feature strongly in a future version of iBooks Author.

As it stands, iBooks textbooks offers very little that hasn’t been on offer for nearly twenty years. Far from reinventing the textbook, Apple have simply taken an existing concept and applied it to a new medium, with, it appears, relatively little in the way of points of difference due to the particular nature of the iPad platform. And so, instead of static text and static images on a page, we are now presented with static text and some moving images on a page. This is a small step forward in terms of paper textbooks, but, in terms of the state of the art with regard to multimedia presentation, it is, absent scripting, possibly even a retrograde step.

In terms of the pedagogy, too, advances are lacking. Beginning with Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences back in the 1980s, educational theory has emphasised learning modalities; it is impossible to escape a teacher-training programme in, at the very least, the United States or New Zealand, without having the concept of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learners pounded deep into one’s brain; it is equally impossible to survive a lesson observation without some questioning of how much a teacher has addressed all of his students’ learning styles.

Textbooks, of course, by their very nature are limited to the visual modality; that is an inescapable constraint of paper. But this constraint, by and large, remains intact in an iBooks textbook, even though the technology no longer imposes it. The essence of an iBooks textbook is written text — everything else is an adjunct to that written text. Indeed, even though text-to-speech conversion is a global function of iOS 5, enabled through the General pane of the Settings app, there appears to be no easy way to use it in an iBooks textbook — this is as wasted an opportunity as exists in iBooks 2.

Being a physics teacher, I naturally downloaded a sample of McGraw Hill’s physics textbook, and played with the chapters on waves and vibration. This has never been the easiest topic in the world to teach in the classroom; springs, ropes and waveform generators can be rather temperamental, and while on a good day a standing waves can be fun, I’ve yet to see a teacher actually manage a third harmonic in a rope on demand. This is where the potential of iBooks 2 is teased to teachers, but even then not entirely brilliantly implemented, and this is a function of the file-size limitation set by Apple.

iBooks textbooks, we have been told, can be up to 2 GB in size if they are to be distributed through the iBookstore. This is reasonable — Apple is hoping to sell a lot of these books, of course, and so they need to make sure that their datacentres, already serving up iTunes, iCloud, and two App Stores, don’t suddenly start laboring under 15 GB behemoths. (This limitation, though, appears not to apply, for example, to the 2.77 GB of biology currently on offer from Pearson.)

I would like to see every photograph in my physics textbook link to a video of a dynamic experiment. But while videos of projectiles, and animations of graphs of their motion, would be a valuable enhancement to a textbook, their creation will inevitably increase production costs for the book, and slow down the editorial cycle somewhat. I already use YouTube to demonstrate things I can’t readily demonstrate in the classroom, such as the brick-on-a-rope-not-hitting-your-face illustration of conservation of energy, but I spend a lot of time doing quality control on YouTube videos; having a ready-made bundle of content on an iPad would be enormously beneficial. Similarly, trying to draw, on a flat, two-dimensional whiteboard, a diagram of the three-dimensional vectors of Maxwell’s Laws is guaranteed to give headaches — so much easier simply to call up the relevant page on an iPad. But the more content you include in your book, the bigger the file will be, and the longer it will take to download.

And downloading is an issue for many people. As I have written about in “Paying by the Bit: Internet Access in New Zealand” (15 January 2010), outside the United States not everyone, including schools, has access to unlimited Internet connections. If my students were issued iPads next month, for the start of the new school year, they would then need to download their textbooks. Would they do this at home? Given that a typical home Internet connection in New Zealand, assuming it even has broadband (dialup is still quite widespread here), has a data cap of 5–10 GB per month, it’s fair to assume that most of my students will want to download their books at school. Perhaps the school would download one instance of each book, and syncing could happen centrally; this would, of course, require that all students sync their iPads with the school’s computers, of which there are not that many; the headaches are multi-layered. Or my school would have to set up and maintain a Wi-FI network for this purpose; that simply become another associated expense.

This is before the school has even provided the iPads. Given the uproar over plans by Orewa College, a moderately well-off secondary school north of Auckland, to require that all incoming students buy iPads or similar, I very much doubt that my school, in the poorer end of south Auckland, would fare terribly well in requiring that parents purchase. This would then leave the school having to buy the devices themselves, which would be difficult. My school, with its socio-economic decile rating of 2, receives almost no funding from the “voluntary” contributions that other schools raise from parents. As a result, it is dependent almost solely on its operating budget of around $1,000 per student from the Ministry of Education. Given that iPads start at $799 here in New Zealand, a very generous educational bulk-purchase discount from Apple would be required in order to make this an even remotely feasible purchase.

In American schools, too, where budget crunches are hurting badly, I question how many schools will be able to afford this technology. Pinellas County in Florida, where I once taught, is facing a budget crisissuch that teacher layoffs and furloughs are being proposed to try to make the books balance. Last year’s budget allowed for a per-student spend of $7,845; a $499 iPad would represent 6 percent of the entire funding allocation for each of the 103,000 students in the county. But while the per-student budget in Pinellas may seem significantly more generous than a New Zealand school’s funding, remember that out of that money must come teacher salaries, which make up 85 percent of the district’s budget; of the remaining $1,177, a $499 iPad is still a very big ask, and when teachers’ salaries are being considered fair game for budget reduction cuts, a five-million-dollar expenditure on iPads would not sit well.

So, in the end, is it worth it? Will students benefit from iPads with textbooks on them? Will they, indeed, benefit sufficiently to warrant the funds outlays involved? Yes, paper textbooks are expensive, and yes, they involve a buy-in that locks schools into using them for maybe five years. But, in physics, for example, the content being taught is not changing so rapidly that we need to replace our textbooks that often, even if wear and tear make it advisable. We can make do for another year; lock-in is not as terrible as it might seem.

But while iPads make it easy and relatively affordable to update content readily, how often will publishers offer free updates? By the time a publisher has updated a textbook to the extent that it actually exploits iBooks 2 and the iPad fully, will that then be a free update? In the meantime, the hardware costs of iPads is not one-off; once the up-front purchase has been made, there will be service costs. Do schools buy AppleCare? What happens to out-of-warranty repairs, in particular batteries wearing out? Will school insurance cover accidental loss, damage, theft?

Had iBooks 2 and iBooks Author been released back in 1996, when CD-ROMs were still a pretty neat idea, I would be writing a very different article. But today, when Apple are trying to claim that twenty-year-old ideas represent a “reinvention” of the textbook, I am less impressed. Schiller, see me after school. Grade: C-. Really must try harder.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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The Hidden Cost of OS X Lion Server: Apple and misleading comments

Posted by steve on Jun 9, 2011 in News

We all know, those of us who care about such things, that Apple will release Mac OS X 10.7 Lion next month. As has been widely discussed, by me and others, Other Steve and his mates went into quite some detail on Monday, dwelling in particular upon the price. Said price — $29 — was, it was widely agreed among pundits, was quite a bargain. What was a tad disappointing was the fact that Lion Server, an integral part of developer preview releases of 10.7, was no longer bundled with the basic software install, requiring a $49 additional purchase from the App Store.

This was a touch disappointing, but $49 for a server package that had previously cost five hundred dollars still seemed quite reasonable. After all, for the money we would be getting “the server for everyone,” to quote the banner on Apple’s website plugging Lion Server. The banner is subtitled:

Now you can quickly and easily turn just about any Mac into a powerful server that’s perfect for home offices, businesses, schools, and hobbyists alike. Lion Server is coming to the Mac App Store in July for $49.99.

“Just about any Mac.” “Perfect for hobbyists.” Under fifty dollars. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Sadly, it is. Clicking on the “How to buy” button in the top right-hand corner of that page leads a rather more distressing page, one listing three steps to turning “just about any Mac” into a server that’s “perfect for hobbyists” “for $49.99.”

Step one is fair enough: make sure your “just about any Mac” has the requisite processing oomph. Can’t argue too much with that, even though “Your Mac must have an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, or Xeon processor to run Lion” isn’t quite the same as “just about any Mac;” in fact, of my three Macs — iMac, mini and MacBook Pro — only the last two fit the bill, meaning that, for me at least, “just about any” equates to “less than 67%.” But let’s not dwell. Onward.

Step three (yes, I know…) is — fortunately — pretty hard to take issue with: “simply open the Mac App Store from your Dock to buy and download Lion and Lion Server.” Can’t argue with that one, can one? Just as well, really, since it’s step two, the one we’ve saved until the end, that really chafes.

Step two: “Get the latest version of Snow Leopard Server.You’ll need Snow Leopard Server v10.6.6 or later to purchase Lion and Lion Server from the Mac App Store. If you have Snow Leopard Server, click the Apple icon and choose Software Update to install the latest version.”

I’m sorry, but this is very, very, very different from “just about any Mac” for “$49.99.” The reality is that you simply can’t install Lion Server on any Mac for $49.99 unless it’s already running Snow Leopard Server.

I have no problem with Apple charging five hundred dollars for Lion Server. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It does bother me that, having abandoned the X-Serve, and with it much real chance of being taken seriously in the future as a viable server option for anything bigger than home offices and hobbyists, they still want to charge the same price for what they now appear to consider a hobby.

Apple can charge howsoever much they see fit. They’re not bound, even, by hints and suggestions, promises inferred from preview releases never meant for public consumption or analysis. But what they shouldn’t do, what they’re better than, is advertising as misleading as this. Lion Server is not available for $49.99, not available for “just about any Mac.”

Apple are — I believed Apple are — better than this. I’m disappointed.

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Fail wail: trying to get Steve’s TechBlog active on Twitter

Posted by steve on Jan 22, 2011 in Facebook, internet, network, News, Personal, Social media, Twitter

I think I may have tweeted prematurely. Last week, I posted the following bit of hubris on the Three Lions Tech Twitter feed:

Three Lions Tech is finally broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook and across the sub-etha network.

Three Lions Technologies, the corporate monolith for which Steve’s TechBlog is the warm, fuzzy and human face, finally had a Facebook page (be the first among your friends to like it!), to which I was now posting via TweetDeck, of which much — oh, so very, very much — to come forthwith, or at least after a few more cups of coffee. As part of a massive social media push that saw me posting like a madman to my moving to New Zealand blog, I also decided that I would also expand the online presences of my other online personae, and so I set about setting up Facebook and Twitter presences for Auckland’s premier Mac consultancy service. The Facebook experience was streamlined enough; all that’s required now is a little content, and all that’s required there is a little more coffee.

Twitter, on the other hand, has been an experience that can only be described as other. To be utterly blunt, I’ve never really got Twitter. From its beginnings in the late mesonettic period, I’ve been sceptical. Even more than blogs (to which I confess to being a late convert; viz this very blog, and this one), Twitter has long struck me as being as narcissistic, as vain, as woefully and dismally self-indulgent as any use yet found for the Internet. I have little interest in the colour of Lady Gaga’s underpants, or indeed whether she’s wearing any, and so a live feed of updates on the colour and deployment status of same seemed fabulously unnecessary. And yet, and yet…I saw a need to be using Twitter. Eventually, after much soul-searching, contemplation and beer, I did the only smart thing a man can do — I asked my wife.

My wife, among her many talents and wonderfulnesses, is the webmaster and social-media specialist for a major American corporation that, in the interests of national security, I should probably refrain from naming. Fortunately, however, she is willing to discuss her work with me, and so I grilled and interrogated her about the merits of social media networking; now, I believe, I start to see the point. And the point, put simply, is this — if everyone else is doing it, then I pretty much have to. Even North Bloody Korea’s got a Twitter feed. Yes, I know, this runs utterly counter to my mother’s “And I suppose if everyone else jumped off a bridge, you’d want to do that, too?” logic that I came to love so very dearly as a teenager, but I see the merit of it, which is why my various online presences are sprouting social-media badges like so many toadstools after a mid-summer downpour such as the one that has deluged much of the top end of the North Island this afternoon.

And so, duly put straight by my wife, yet again, I decided to set up a Twitter account for Three Lions Technologies. The setup started as smoothly as one would expect when dealing with one of the largest and most inescapable services in all of Netdom, one which has had five internet years — centuries in human years — to get things right. I followed the steps required of me on the Twitter website, and all went well, but as soon as action was required from the other end, it all went to custard.

In order for a Twitter account to become fully activated, to emerge from its shell so to speak (see what I did there? Shell, birds, tweet….get it?), a new user must respond to an activation email from Twitter. And in order for a new user to respond to an email from Twitter, Twitter must first send that email. And…well, that’s rather where it all broke down. I entered my super-secret private and personal email address, clicked “save,” and then looked in Mail for an incoming message. Nothing there, so I refreshed my mail — still nothing. I returned to the Twitter website, asked for a resend, and checked again. And again.

I run my own mailserver, and so I thought that maybe that was where the problem could be found. I tried using a different email address, at a different domain, but still Twitter failed to send a confirmation email. In sheer, utter desperation, I turned to The Google, who in turn referred me to Twitter’s help pages, where I found this remarkably helpful advice:

Use an email from a large domain.

Setting aside the fact that they clearly, clearly need a new tech writer, I looked further and came to the opinion that, no matter the size of the domain from which I used an email (I tried everything from the oddly small threelionstech.com to the paradoxically huge me.com; size clearly didn’t matter to Twitter), it wasn’t Twitter’s fault. Delivery to small domains is inconsistent. Spam filters are over-aggressive. Changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. The dog ate your email. Vint Cerf ate your email. A litany of excuses that all lead back to the basic problem: my Twitter account remains un-activated.

I do remain, however, unclear as to what that means. I can be searched for and found; I can tweet; I can follow and be followed. Still, don’t you expect better from Twitter?

(If you liked this post, then feel free to Like it or retweet it using the buttons at the bottom of the post, and, if you’re really interested to find out what happens next, then be sure to follow Three Lions Technologies on Facebook and Twitter.)

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Upgrading to WordPress

Posted by steve on Jan 11, 2010 in News, Personal, Software, Uncategorized

One of the biggest dangers associated with having as many websites as I do — a good half-dozen, at the last count, including this one, this one and this one — is that it’s hard to keep generating content for all of them. And, while I’ve been busy writing about all manner of other things, I’ve been sadly neglecting my very own site. I looked at it recently and realised that I hadn’t updated the content in over a year and a half.

My website, before rebuilding in WordPress

My website, before rebuilding in WordPress

The irony, of course, was that I’ve been working on plenty of other sites about, and for, other people and other things. I’ve been using WordPress as my new primary web-design tool; it’s gone way beyond the blogging engine it used to be and has become a fully-featured and quite mature content-management system. I’ve been taking advantage of its flexibility for my other concerns and clients, so I decided it was time to rebuild my own site in WordPress.

The problem was, I built my site a couple of years ago in DreamWeaver, and I quite liked the look of it. It wasn’t, I’ll admit, the absolute last word in design — I’m much more the writer and technician; the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe is very much the designer of the operation — but I was fond of it. The challenge was how to re-purpose the design I’d created in DreamWeaver as a WordPress theme.

In the end, it turned out to be quite remarkably easy. I’ll post a complete blow-by-blow one of these days; for the time being, here are the basic steps:

The same site, rebuilt in WordPress
The same site, rebuilt in WordPress

  • Install WordPress on my hosting service. This was quite straightforward — my hosting service use Fantastico De Luxe, a very simple couple-of-clicks installation system. Once it was set up, it was time to
  • Create a new theme. This basically required two files in a folder in the Themes directory of my WordPress installation. Despite what I’ve read elsewhere, it looks like all that’s required is a basic template file, index.php, and a stylesheet, stylesheet.css — so long as those two are there, you’re in business. The next step was to
  • Upload the stylesheet. A little bit of tweaking of the .css file and it was ready to upload to the server. This contained all the designy goodness of the site; all that was left, now, was to
  • Replace verbiage in the home page to WordPress .php code. This was the tricky bit, but, with a fair old bit of trying, reloading, re-trying, re-reloading and so forth, it turned out to be a fairly straightforward process.

So there it is. SteveMcCabe.net is now live again. It’s all but indistinguishable from the old version. I did make a couple of very small adjustments that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, but otherwise the site’s where I wanted it to be.

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The sincerest form of flattery

Posted by steve on Oct 20, 2009 in Hardware, News, Personal, Reviews

Among their fanboys at least, Apple are particularly lauded for their innovation, for their uncanny ability to create new and creative solutions and ideas, the newly-announced Magic Mouse being a case in point — it’s still a mouse, still does the usual point-and-click stuff that any old mouse should be able to accomplish, but at the same time, it’s also a multi-touch surface capable of all manner of gesturey goodness.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened across this latest bit of Apple brilliance. Yes, Apple have suddenly realised that their Mac mini is the ideal machine to use as a headless server if you’re not quite willing to fork over the monstrous sums required for an Xserve.

The idea, of course, is simplicity itself. The Mac mini is a perfectly capable computing engine, but one that, out of the box, lacks the human-interface bits and bobs that would be required to make it a fully-configured end-user machine, but which are entirely unnecessary for a server. Brilliant.

In fact, so brilliant is the idea that I’m glad I thought of it myself. In fact, not only did I think of it myself, I even wrote about it, back in January of this year.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I should be indignant that my brilliance, my sheer genius, my thinking-different-ness, has been appropriated by The Other Steve. But on the other, imitation is, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery, and, magnanimous creature that I undeniably am, I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the fact that this latest [ahem] innovation has driven Apple’s share price up a healthy additional nine dollars.

Of course, now that I’m in New Zealand, I find myself less than impressed by Apple’s stock going up; gains in APPL are barely offsetting the nosedive of the US dollar against real currencies such as the kiwi dollar. But still, maybe I’ll make enough to buy me a new Magic Mouse.

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