Making iBooks vs. Making iBooks for Learning CS

January 23, 2012 at 8:16 am 10 comments

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.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  January 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    There are two issues at stake here. One is the technical solution and the second is the business model. Making the two work together is the hard part. The Apple business model seems to have been designed by people who either don’t understand how schools work or who think that schools will buy anything if it comes from Apple.
    One of the flaws in the whole logic of some of what I’ve read about this program is that it makes it so “anyone can write one of these books.” Clearly the people who say that have not written a textbook. Sure there is a shortage of tools to make interactive textbooks but that is hardly the hard part.

  • 2. Jeff Rick  |  January 24, 2012 at 2:12 am

    The thing that annoyed me is that there is no support for collaboration. A textbook is used in a classroom, which is generally composed of a set of students and a teacher. Given what we know about the benefits of collaborative learning, there are great ways to exploit that context. For instance, students could share notes with each other. The class in total could share text highlights. Answers could be aggregated across the class and sent to the teacher to provide feedback about which concepts are difficult. We, of course, need more research to establish what are useful forms of collaboration with / through textbooks in the classroom, but it would be nice to have a platform to test these things out. Sadly, iBooks is not that platform YET. We’ll see how it evolves.

  • 3. Tony Hursh  |  January 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

    The license is pretty bad; I’m expecting a modification or clarification from Apple very soon.

    In the meantime, you’d probably want write your content and create your graphics using other tools, then use iBooks Author only to format it for sale in the iBookstore (it doesn’t look like they claim ownership of your text, only the “compiled” version generated by their software). I don’t think I’d want to write directly in iBooks Author anyway; it’s really more of a layout and formatting tool.

    It does let you link out to external websites (simulations, discussion forums, whatever). Not ideal, perhaps, but better than nothing.

    A LaTeX-to-ebook package that generated attractive output would be great, but the ones I’ve seen generate output that is incredibly ugly (an odd limitation, given how beautiful the printed output from LaTeX can be).

    • 4. Tim  |  February 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

      You want a LaTeX-to-ebook package that creates good-looking ebooks.

      My suggestion: use LyX to import your LaTeX document (actually, I’d write it in LyX to start with), then export to LyXHTML, then run this document through Sigil. Voila! An EPub!

      If you want a Mobi too, then run your EPub through Calibre.

      • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  February 7, 2012 at 11:35 am

        No — LaTeX isn’t good for specifying interpreters and simulations. A good ebook for teaching CS is not deliverable through mobi or ePub. LaTeX has lots of the right features, but it doesn’t have the right features for creating a good CS ebook.

  • 6. donald  |  January 24, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I haven’t tried it out yet, but my first thought upon reading that the HTML5 cluster (including Javascript) is an option in iBooks Author was to drop Lively Kernel in a book and provide the programming environment on the page. Including an Amber environment with Active Essays in an iBook would be great. It will take a little poking to find the limits of any Javascript sandbox Apple built into the reader and understand just what can be shoehorned in.

    Even if imbedding these two live code environments don’t pan out the ability to write Javascript interactions for engaging students has my attention. Anyone else interested in creating a libre collection of HTML5 widgets for educational texts?

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  January 25, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Can Lively Kernel run on an iPad? Last time I tried, it didn’t, but it would be wonderful if it could.

      Agreed — if the HTML5 clustering would allow us to drop in Lively Kernel or other large JavaScript-based programming environments, then iBooks Author would become much more attractive for CS Ed books.

      • 8. donald  |  January 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm

        I don’t have an iPad to try things on, and it seems the iBook Author environment won’t run imbedded widgets. I’ll likely have access to an iPad in a few days (traveling) and will let you know what I find.

  • […] essay is another take on Alfred Thompson’s comment in my blog post on iBooks Author — is it a good thing that iBooks Author makes it possible for anyone to write a textbook? […]

  • […] we can make even more powerful interactive books. But how do we do it? How can we make it easier, more accessible, more scalable than cutting out […]


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