Apple unveils interactive textbooks, revamped iTunes U

The iBooks 2 app is available for free.

Apple might make the heavy backpack an endangered species.

There won’t be much students can’t do with a few taps and swipes of their Apple iPads after the tech giant’s introduction of iBooks 2–a book store that now includes interactive textbooks–and an iTunes University app that could create a comprehensive school experience inside the popular computer tablet.

Apple officials confirmed Jan. 19 weeklong speculation that the company would jump into the textbook market during a press event at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, introduced the next iteration of the iBooks app, which for the first time will offer textbooks that start at $14.99 or less for high school students.

The iBooks 2 app is available for free in Apple’s Apps Store. Pricing for college textbooks wasn’t immediately available. Apple’s iBooks 2 will be stocked by publishing giants Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, which make up 90 percent of the U.S. textbook market.

Textbooks available on the iPad through the iBooks 2 app will have interactive photos, videos, and diagrams, along with 3D images that can be manipulated and rotated with a touch of the screen. Students can highlight sections of a digital book with the swipe of a finger and create digital index cards inside the book without leaving their current page.

Authors of iBooks 2 textbooks can continually update their content. Students, once they’ve purchased the digital book for their iPad, can view the updated versions with no charge, and can keep the book in their library indefinitely.

“It’s certainly something we’ve been dreaming about for a couple years,” said Bill Rankin, director of educational innovation at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas, one of higher education’s most prominent users of Apple products. “It’s equivalent to the democratization that happened under Gutenberg. Digitized books are much different than digital books. [Apple] isn’t just offering digitized versions of print material. This is a new generation media object.”

The Apple announcement also introduced educators and textbook publishers to a free authoring tool for anyone who wants to create a textbook.

Using Apple’s operating system, authors can create books with templates according to what kind of book they’re writing and publishing.

Giving authors an easy way to publish content, Rankin said, will usurp the traditional view of peer review in education.

“This is really a revolutionary change in publishing and information,” he said. “The benefit of crowdsourcing … outweighs dramatically the elitism that used to dominate peer review. This breaks down the hierarchies and barriers to real learning.”

Apple also showed off its newest version of iTunes U, an online library that college students have used to download 700 million videos and other educational material over the past four years.

The newest iteration of iTunes U will bring a host of functionality to the app available in the Apple Apps Store. Students will be able to take entire online courses through iTunes U–everything from watching recorded lectures, to submitting assignments, to rating faculty members. Syllabi and faculty member profiles are also available on the iTunes U app.

The app even allows students to sign up for courses.

Homework assigned by professors using the iTunes U app are sent to a student’s iPad immediately. The student will be notified of the assignment, tap it on the iPad screen, and be transferred to the day’s assignment. Students can place a check mark next to every finished assignment in the iTunes U queue.

Higher education’s early iTune U adopters are Duke, Yale, The Open University, Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Never before have educators been able to offer full courses in such an innovative way, allowing anyone who’s interested in a particular topic to learn from anywhere in the world,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of internet software and services. “Not just the classroom.”

Schiller said Apple would add to its new iTunes U and iBooks 2 offerings, although details on when that might happen were scarce.

“There is a lot that’s talked about that might be wrong in education, and no one person or company can fix it all,” he said.

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Denny Carter

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