Archive for January 23, 2012

Making iBooks vs. Making iBooks for Learning CS

The announcement about Apple’s new iBooks Author application was pretty exciting for me last week.  As readers may recall, we just started a new NSF project in October to create book-like electronic media to support high school teachers learning CS.  Here’s a new authoring tool just for building electronic books for learning!  Just what we were hoping for!

From what I have learned about it (I need to get a newer Mac to run it), it does sound exciting.  I love a lot of the features, like the variety of multi-touch widgets provided and the support for general HTML5 drop-ins.  I am eager to play with it.

Here are my four biggest concerns about it right now:

(1) It’s made for a narrow definition of learning.  We know that students learn based on what they do and think, not what the lecturer or the book does.  Below is the quote for what iBooks Author provides for students to do, in what they currently call “Chapter Review” questions.  You can answer multiple choice questions, or you can label images, or you can identify the right image for the term.  Huh?  So, I can learn a variety of simple propositional statements, some with images.  Is that it?  That’s all that we might want students to learn from iBooks?

Chapter Reviews

Let readers test their knowledge using a variety of question types: multiple choice, choose the correct image, label the image, or a mix of all three. Authors can include six possible answers to each question.

via Apple – iBooks Author – Gallery.

(2) There is no support for complexity.  I gave a panel talk at the C5 Conference on Friday about needing an infrastructure for building complex electronic books.  Given a choice between Word and LaTeX for writing a book (meaning you know both), I know of no one who prefers Word for writing books.  Word just doesn’t support building large and complex documents like what LaTeX provides.  Books are big, complicated things, with lots of referencing between them.  You want to be able to name things, so that you can easily reference it elsewhere, and build tools to track the names.  You want to be able to change things, and names (for regions, and for details) make that easier.  A tool can be WYSIWYG and still support symbols and naming, and even have a programming language underneath (as LaTeX does).

iBooks Author, at least in its current version, supports even less complexity than Word.  Apple has bragged about their terrific support for glossaries and accessibility, both of which are great. There is no support for references or footnotes. I can’t reference figures, pages, or sections as a symbol or name.

(3) I don’t think I can teach CS with it.  That’s what I am most interested in doing. Much of what I want to do with eBooks, I can’t do with iBooks Author.  Can I build an interpreter or simulation in that HTML5 generic segment?  Can I have code visualizations?  Or connect to a course/cohort-only social space where students can talk about what they’re reading and doing, and see that they’re really doing fine in the class (because we know that self-efficacy is a significant factor in CS1 success)?  The current iBooks Author only goes so far, and that’s not far enough to meet what I believe are the unique needs of computing education.

(4) Apple’s EULA is “greedy and evil.”  The end user licensing agreement for iBooks Author requires authors to only sell iBooks through Apple.

As ZDNet reports:

The nightmare scenario under this agreement? You create a great work of staggering literary genius that you think you can sell for 5 or 10 bucks per copy. You craft it carefully in iBooks Author. You submit it to Apple. They reject it.

Under this license agreement, you are out of luck. They won’t sell it, and you can’t legally sell it elsewhere. You can give it away, but you can’t sell it.

That’s almost like Microsoft saying that they have all rights to sell whatever you create with Office.  (“Almost” because it is the case that iBooks Author produces…iBooks, that only run on Apple devices.)  It’s a pretty frightening document.  I am not sure that I would want to go to the effort of creating a book under these terms.

Bottomline: iBooks Author looks like an advance from what tools we have now for eBooks, and it’s really exciting. There are still some pretty big concerns that will keep me from using it, particularly for computing education.

January 23, 2012 at 8:16 am 10 comments


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