Thursday, January 19, 2012

Questions and Cold Chills: A BYOT Advocate's Initial Reaction to iBooks2

I am hesitant to write this blog entry so early with so many unanswered questions, particularly since the topic itself is going to potentially open me up to flamebait, but I figured that I would use what influence I have to start the ball rolling. As I have said before, it is time for educators to start demanding the tools we need to improved education through technology. (thanks to my fellow debate coach, no-twitter kantz, for encouraging me to get this one posted sooner rather than later).

Today Apple announced another foray into education with the release of iBooks2 and its related software iAuthor for OSX (Lion). With this announcement came a lot of promise and potential, but a lot of unanswered questions. Some of these questions need to be answered quickly before we as educators find ourselves with a potentially expensive and educationally unpleasant reality (netbooks, I am looking at you).

The announcement: Any iOS user will be able to download iBooks2 and access textbooks that have massive multimedia potential, replace the weight of gigantic textbooks, and cost...wait for it ...$14.99 or less. On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer boon to the educational world. Add the fact that educators can use the tools to create their own content, and this seems like gold. And yet, the more I think about it, the colder the concept leaves me.

Not the economic boon that it seems:
The first thing the twitter-feed began howling about (after the shiny and the pretty) was the price. While I agree that it would be refeshing to see the publishers forced to lower prices in the face of an ebook juggernaut, that is NOT what is happening here (in fact, the juggernaut that WAS doing that so well was Amazon Pre-iPad. It wasn’t until the “set your own price, we’ll take 30%” iBooks deal with publishers that you saw kindle books go over $9.99).

High School Textbooks (notice that the iBooks2 announcement was NOT college?) are by and large purchased by schools for multiple years. Students pay a rental fee on textbooks (sometimes subsidized by the government). Any guess on how much publishers make per year on a book? somewhere between 15 and 17 dollars. So, depending on the book, the publishers save money on printing, distribution, shipping, warehousing, etc. and just take the 70% of their cut of $14.99. Nice deal for them. Nice deal for Apple. No real loss for families.

But once we realize that this is not a gamechanger brought about by twisting the arms of the publishers to let go of profits, this whole model begins to look different.

In the world of books, Content is King
Did everyone catch the selection that was released today? somewhere between 8 and 12 books depending on how you count the DK publisher books that were announced and the oh-so-pretty-but-oh-so-incomplete LIFE ON EARTH. Forget about the financial savings, you cannot even run a single schedule on those books, let alone a school. How many books will be available by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year?

Will the supporting publishers, of which much was made that they are responsible for 90% of all textbooks, be making their entire catalog available? Not Likely.

Aside: When we began investigating ebooks for Brebeuf Jesuit, we were stone-walled by a publisher (who claimed they were “leading the way” in ebooks) because the textbook which our math teachers preferred would NEVER be digitized. It was just kept in circulation because a lot of teachers felt it was a high-quality book...They would much rather us buy one of two other options that would be digitized.

If schools and corporations go all-in with the iPad solution, imagine the pressure that will be brought to bear on teachers and departments to go with the book that does not create issues of inventory, storage, etc. Quality of the text, appropriateness for curriculum and pedagogy, etc. will take a backseat to “but its not available on the iPad.” This was already beginning and now it seems a lock.

The second selection issue that arises in my mind is the grey area between advanced high school texts and college textbooks. The book distributor that our school uses is working on a cross-platform (with android, iphone, and HTML5) e-reader that will have about 40% of our booklist available by the start of next school year. But these eBooks follow the more common college model of limited access licenses for less cost than a new paper-book. Those are two VERY different pricing models that do not necessarily coexist (remember, the college textbooks have single-user costs closer to the total cost of the high-school book model).

Content Creation vs. Intellectual Property
I am a huge advocate of flushing SOPA, ProtectIP, and the congressional sponsors who refuse to learn about the consequences of their blind actions away like bad refuse. But I also teach my students about the importance of copyright and intellectual property. I teach them to give credit to sources. I proclaim the harbor of educational fair use. I help teachers envision a virtual website (or wiki or blog or eBook) that collects public domain documents in an effort to increase primary source research AND kick the textbook habit. Teachers (not just students) violate the ethics of intellectual property knowingly and unknowingly all the time. iAuthor is powerful, but where is the corresponding responsibility to ensure accuracy, responsibility, and intellectual credit.

Further, I don’t think teachers have the time and space now to effectively curate the information available on the web and elsewhere with any kind of regularity. I cringe at the idea that this will be presented as an additional expectation of teachers, particularly if it exposes them to the kind of scrutiny that our government seems all to willing to pass into law.

Creating a Nurturing Environment for Competition
I don’t think we are getting a straight answer yet (admittedly, its only been like 10 hours) about the exclusivity agreement that Apple is making people sign. It is completely reasonable that if you use the iAuthor tool, that the book goes to iBooks. I am more disturbed by the possibility that presence in the iBooks store means exclusivity from all e-book alternatives. Based on information coming out now, although still with murky wording, the exclusivity agreement is locked to the files that are created by iAuthor (even if that file is distributed, maybe, through a different channel). Thus, a publisher can still choose to create a kindle edition of the book, a KNO version of the book, etc. Whether they will want to take this extra step is going to be up to educators and parents and students. If we roll over and let the publishers and the distribution channel decide format for us, then we have to be satisfied with the result. For my part, I want competition.

I want Kno and Kindle and iBooks to all have the same book competing in this marketplace. I have been  tremendously impressed with the early tests of MBS’s Direct Digital (formerly Explana): this cross-platform (HTML5, iOS, Android) system includes single swipe highlighting, multi color, notetaking, export of notes into Word orPDF format), and offline accessibility. I love the socialization features (collaborative underlining, tweeting out passages) that Kindle introduced last year. I want to see prices drop and cross-compatibility of platforms and other distinguishing selling points. I want each publisher and distributor constantly one-upping on features and not suing each other (I can dream). I want a student who prefers to read on a 7” tablet to have that option (note: my BYOT partner @40ishoracle downloaded the environmental science book -- not even iOS’s iPad only).

The digital textbook market is still in its infancy (heck, ebooks are really just now toddlers). We need systems that nurture competition so that the best and the brightest ideas are allowed to compete. If we allow book-exclusivity to force the choice of technology at the school, district, or individual level, we could end up with what a single company determines is best for us.

Heck, I’m not even sure I want that corporation to be Google, and they “give” stuff away.

There has been and will be a lot written about this development. Here are two that i have found helpful: