Textbooks?

The arrival of iBooks Author from Apple is set to herald a new level of democratization in the publishing world. Anyone can now create and sell their own textbook using a very intuitive, yet powerful platform, and then sell their finished product directly through Apple’s iBookstore. Down with the big publishing company monopolies! Or at least, that’s how Apple would like you to see it. The actual reality is that once you create something on iBooks Author, you’re now betrothed to Apple forever. There’s some debate around these terms of use and their ultimate intent, but until Apple offers an alternative option (e.g. pay for the software), using iBooks Author means only being able to sell your book in iBookstore.

Despite this very large obstacle around authors retaining control over their works, I’m still positive about the ability to create professional looking publications using iBooks Author, and the fact that you can still distribute these publications for free outside of iBookstore holds promise. But the larger question is, why are we still so beholden to students using textbooks in the first place?

I dare you to learn how to do this by reading a textbook. Photo © Brian Farrell

I’ll admit it, the students in my class have certainly glanced at a textbook on several occasions, and they do have their time and place. Certain curricula, particularly those based upon weighty final exams, can benefit from a well-structured textbook to ensure that all of the material is adequately covered. They are an easy resource to consult in independently reviewing key material. And in learning fundamental skills or looking at rote analysis of issues, textbooks can definitely be of benefit.

But in my opinion, the majority of learning occurring in our classrooms should not be coming as the result of students reading their textbooks. There are too many other dynamic, more engaging, and just generally more authentic ways for students to learn than simply sitting them in front of a textbook. Students need to be able to express their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate others that they have read. They need to form connections between seemingly disparate topics, not read linearly from chapter to chapter. And they need to make decisions about what information is valid, relevant, and correct, not to just read the opinion of one author deemed worthy enough to write a textbook. In this sense, iBooks Author is a solution addressing a solution rather than fixing the fundamental problem of using textbooks in the first place.

Now, having students use iBooks Author to create their own textbooks, that’s a completely different (and much more empowering and educationally relevant) story!

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Top 10 Educational Technology Developments of 2011

© 2011 Brian Farrell

As the year winds down (winter break started today, yay!), and as my COETAIL grading pile ramps up, I’ve been reflecting on some of the developments in educational technology over the past year, and what this will mean for our learning communities in 2012. By no means an exhaustive list, here are 10 developments (in no particular order – in fact, I think #2 is probably the most important!) that I think will impact our classrooms, libraries, and online learning spaces in the coming year:

1. Kindle eBook Lending for Libraries

Certainly not a complete solution (it isn’t even available outside of the US yet), but definitely a step in the right direction. While Amazon is not exactly a model citizen when it comes to supporting libraries, and while publishers are already getting itchy about people borrowing their books, ebooks are a space that libraries want to be in, and librarians need vendors that will work with them in providing ebook solutions to their patrons.

2. The Online Filter Bubble and a Junk Food Information Diet

Probably the most important idea of the year, and yet probably also something that most people don’t even realize is happening. If you aren’t aware of how the internet is being fed to you, and just how tailored your online experience has become, you need to watch this TED talk by Eli Pariser. This is something that all educators need to make sure that their students are aware of.

3. Skype in the Classroom

Skype was already a great tool for educators, particularly those of us working in international settings. The formalization of their education site now means easier collaboration amongst teachers and students around the world. I can already hear Google grumbling, so I’d watch for similar developments coming from Google Voice.

4. Steve Jobs’ death

I was torn about including this one, as Steve Jobs was not exactly a model corporate citizen. Still, his penchant for innovation and revival of Apple into a company that provides outstanding and highly useable products in educational spaces will mean that he will be greatly missed. I’m not naive enough to think that the loss of Jobs will mean the demise of Apple, but I do think that there’s a limit to how quickly and how many innovations can keep coming from them. As a result, schools like mine that rely heavily on Apple devices need to keep a keen eye on the competition to make sure that we’re providing the best tools to our students.

5. Google to acquire Motorola

Google is huge and just keeps getting bigger. Their purchase of a hardware manufacturer in Motorola means that they can now better compete in the smartphone market, which should be a positive development as far as new innovations and healthy competition is concerned. I’m a big fan of open source solutions though, and despite their promises, it’s hard to say whether Google will continue to keep Android truly open now that they are directly competing in the smartphone hardware marketplace. Still, the possibilities afforded to education by mobile platforms are already fantastic (see #10 below), and I’m excited to see what a Google/Motorola partnership will bring to our schools.

6. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

This law makes me nervous, and really is a step far too far. Respecting copyright is one thing (and the right thing), but a total clampdown on any sort of fair use online makes the US is now looking more like China and Iran when it comes to online spaces, and I’m hopeful that the recent backlash continues to slow things down. Even as a producer and seller of online content, I realize that for creativity to continue, people need to feel free to explore and share their creations online. While the online space may be new to legislators, this is just a case of a business model needing to change – if you think this is a new problem, watch this excellent video series.

7. Internet Explorer Auto-updates

This may seem like a small story, but I feel that it is actually quite significant. By making this move, Microsoft is attempting to make their platforms more secure by forcing users to update to the newest version of their software automatically. The Orwellian in me has doubts about others controlling my software remotely, but the realist in me  acknowledges that this will greatly benefit many computer users (hi mom!) who don’t realize that they’re putting themselves at risk by running out of date software. I currently work in an all-Mac school, but I can hear the cheers already from IT support people in schools that run on Windows.

8. WebOS Open Source

The more open source platforms, the better (see #5). While most don’t believe that WebOS will be a major competitor in the marketplace, by making this platform available to the public, HP is allowing new developers to get a foothold in the mobile marketplace. Any super programming geeks in your school? Why not let them loose on WebOS?

9. The other tablets – HP Touchpad, RIM Playbook, and Kindle Fire (with apologies to Samsung)

Yes, there are other tablets out there. The iPad is a fantastic tool, but there are other (cheaper) alternatives that can do a lot of the same things quite well. Well, assuming that they are still around in 2012 – the Touchpad is already on its way out, and I’m assuming that the Playbook is not far behind it. Particularly for schools that find it hard to fully fund a fleet of iPads, the alternatives are worth looking at, and their continued development means more innovation, which is good for everyone, iPad user or not.

10. iPhone 4s & iPad2

The iPhone and iPad are already tremendous additions to the classroom, but I feel as though we’re just scratching the surface of what we could be doing with these devices. The addition of a (in the case of the iPhone 4s, much better) camera to the iPhone and iPad mean even greater flexibility in how these devices can be used in our classrooms. Our field studies micro-blogging project at my school has been ongoing for several years, and is one great example of how smart phones can be integrated seamlessly into our schools.


Thanks for reading this far. I wish you and yours a restful holiday break, and all the best in 2012.

The Latest ebook Frustration

I’ve mentioned a few times here my frustration with ebooks and their lack of functionality in libraries. The saga continues:

“HarperCollins—citing the explosive growth of e-book sales—announced a new e-book lending policy beginning March 7 that will limit the length of its library licenses to a maximum of 26 loans per e-title.” (Calvin Read – Publishers Weekly, March 2, 2011)

Eiffel Girders ©Brian Farrell

The irony in this for me is that I have just this week been in contact again with OverDrive about possibly starting a subscription to their library ebook service now that they support the iPad and iPhone. OverDrive is the very company that is bowing to HarperCollins’ demands of limiting the number of circulations of each ebook to 26 loans per title, and so I now have to face the moral issue of whether we should support them or not.

Author and blogger Cory Doctorow has been writing for years about how awful any sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) is, and I’m starting to understand why. Publishers like HarperCollins are now starting to realize their power given these tools, and are lashing out in a bid to keep themselves relevant. Not surprising, given that authors are realizing that in the ebook game, publishers are irrelevant and they can do just fine on their own, thank you very much.

Ongoing library e-book frustrations

We’ve had a Kindle here for a few years now, and while it has been useful in some respects, it still isn’t a perfect solution for us as a library. A recent blog post about Amazon’s reluctance to work cooperatively with libraries has reminded me of some of the frustrations that I’ve been sharing about e-books for years now, and the situation doesn’t seem to be resolving itself.

Iron Door ©Brian Farrell

Libraries need the ability to have their patrons access e-books on a variety of devices. Any readers that support the ePub format (such as the Sony Reader, the Nook, and the Kobo) already do this, but the selection of titles available to libraries from providers such as NetLibrary and Overdrive are still quite limited. Traditional suppliers like Follett have attempted to launch e-books, but by not making their titles accessbile on portable devices, they have very limited useability. Worse still, many of these e-book providers muddy the distinction between e-books and audio books, while these are clearly very different.

Buying titles from Amazon works as a solution in terms of allowing us access to a larger range of works, but their rights management protection limits how we can share titles. I also have moral qualms about supporting a supplier like Amazon that has been so vehement in their lack of library support to date. As an added challenge, this model really means that the library has to own the e-reader devices and then loan them out to patrons, as there’s no practical way to have students upload from one account to another. This last challenge is workable, but many e-book readers already have their own devices, and loaning out expensive (albeit coming down in price every day) e-readers to students can be problematic.

An ideal library e-book solution then would be:

  • Downloadable to a variety of devices (e-Pub does this)
  • Have a wide selection of available titles (Amazon is currently best for this)
  • A mix of (primarily) student-owned devices and (supplemental) library-owned devices

Am I missing something? Is someone already providing a solution that ticks these boxes?

Google Book Search

So the news is now a little old, but I’ve been thinking about Google’s recent settlement with the publishing industry.  It looks like more and more content will soon be accessible, and I couldn’t be happier.  Right now they only have very preliminary information available, but I hope that sooner rather than later we will be able to sign up as an institution and begin contributing our own collection to the larger project.  Space is definitely at a premium here, so I think it would be fantastic to be able to archive all of our physical copies with an eye to eliminating them alltogether.

As a preK-12 school though, I already see some problems for us with Google’s system.  There’s no easy way to search for age-appropriate material, although I get the impression that there really isn’t a lot of elementary or middle school level stuff available anyway.  Still, it’s a step in the right direction.  Come on Google, keep it rolling – show me where to sign!

How Google and Apple can make a lot more money

I’ve been working on a couple of projects lately and have come up against some frustrations.  Some of this is a bit of a rehashing of things, but I haven’t posted in a while, so here goes.

Ebooks.  There’s still no easy way for a library to process these.  As I’ve vented about before, we’re stuck with choosing between systems from library vendors (eg Follett) that work well in terms of the back of house library processing stuff but aren’t really intuitive or well designed for our users or systems from non library vendors that are intuitive (eg iTunes) but that aren’t set up well to work with a library loan system.  I actually had a chance to share this with a rep from Apple Japan last week, and we’ve got visitors coming from their big house in California next week that will hear the same thing from me.  Being non-library people though, I’m not sure if they fully understand our unique constraints and how we’re different from individual users.  Maybe they need to hire a library consultant…

My other problem of late concerns databases.   I think we have some great ones in terms of content, but again, they aren’t always the most user friendly.  As a result, we have some teachers recommending Google Scholar to their students even though we are paying a lot of money for access to a bunch of other databases (EBSCO, Questia, Newsbank, BrainPOP).  While I’d obviously prefer that we use the products we’re currently paying for, I fully understand why our users would gravitate towards Google Scholar – it’s an interface that they’re already used to, and therefore much less intimidating.  Google just needs to figure out a way to harness this potential revenue stream.  If it meant being able to increase their content, they should find a way to charge our library each time one of our students accesses one of their articles and I’d gladly pay the fee.

Google and Apple, I’ll kindly accept a 10% cut in the royalties for these ideas.  Given the markets of late though, my preferred form of payment will be in pelts or furs or some sort of payment that I can put in a coffee can and bury out in the woods.

My love/hate relationship with ebooks

First off, I must admit that my library currently has no ebooks in its collection.  Neither did the last one I worked at.  Fundamentally, it all comes down to one big problem – logistics.

  • How can we make our circulation systems work with ebooks?
  • How can we ensure that these materials don’t get copied?
  • How can we easily distribute these holdings to only our patrons?

There are various solutions out there, and I will pursue one eventually.  For now, our impending migration to a new circulation system has meant that projects like this are temporarily on hold.

Stanza has been suggested as a possible solution.  People have talked before about Amazon’s Kindle.  Sony has a similar product.  To me they all present the same problem – cost.  I really don’t think it’s practical for any library to pay the same (or often higher) price for a printed title and then to also pay three hundred dollars for readers to view them.

So we’ll likely stick with the system that will integrate best with our new circulation software, and that’s Follett’s ebooks.  They don’t integrate seamlessly with handheld devices (they run on PalmOS or PocketPC – apparently Follett has not yet heard of that new fangled gadget called an iPod).  They’re limited in title selection, and they cost just as much as print copies.

Can you see why I’m hesitant to hurry up and buy these things?

Apple, please save me (and my rapidly decreasing AAPL shares) and make a library solution for iTunes.