iBooks Author: in which we enter the swirl of controversy

I recently started using Apple’s new software iBooks Author, aimed at aiding educators. (At the time of this post, the software is ranked 4.5/5 stars based on 826 ratings.) The application provides templates well-suited to textbooks, and that is the main purpose for which Apple seems to be marketing the product. However, there has been a certain amount of anathema leveled at the software since its debut.  Some of it is warranted, in my opinion; some of it is not.

The most legitimate complaints I’ve read have been in the review section of the application’s download/info page on the Mac App Store. These complaints mostly had to do with the lack of support for footnotes/end notes (both of which are truly a problem for software that purports to be for use in academia), the licensing agreement, and some reported software crashes or difficulties with previewing the books on the iPad (problems I have not had). insidehighered.com recently published an essay by Alan J. Reid on the subject, which you can read here.  His complaints are quite different from those most people have.  He states that for the past three years, he’s been pursuing a Ph.D. in this very field: instructional design and technology, i.e., interactive digital text. Therefore he feels, and probably rightfully so, that he has an edge when it comes to discussing this topic.  This is what he says:

But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.

I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!

Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim?  This is my point.  We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.

I have three problems with his perspective:

1. This is not a new problem; calling it “instructional design” because it involves technology gives it more insight into how effective teaching works.  Previous generations called it pedagogy. I have endured my share of poorly designed course packets, syllabuses, Powerpoint presentations, and even entire courses in my ten years of learning in higher education. Adding one more way for careless faculty to make rum-dumby materials won’t change the ongoing trend. (And I don’t see how it could be much worse than having to decipher an entire course packet of scribbled handwriting on a photocopy of a photocopy made fifteen years earlier—and yes, I’ve had to do that.)

2. Chances are, instructors who don’t care about how something is designed won’t bother taking the time and effort to learn new software and re-make materials of which they already have a preexisting crummy version.

3. I have studied under plenty of professors whose instructional design was quite meticulous (contrasted with no. 1, above). Why shouldn’t they be allowed to distribute materials digitally? Just because they don’t have a degree in “Instruction Design” does not mean they don’t pay attention or have an eye for those considerations.

More legitimate concerns have been voiced by others, such as the licensing agreement, which prohibits the sale of your “itextbook” in the .ibooks format through any medium other than iTunes.  However, if instructors wish to simply create free materials for use in class, or distribute the publication via PDF, they are free to do so.

The footnotes/end notes issue is the only raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth. Any academic software ought to be equipped with this capability, and I’m frankly shocked that Apple didn’t include it. It seems like a no-brainer. However, I imagine that this will be amended in future updates.

I’ve used the software, and I’m really excited about its potential—particular in regard to the interactive elements. One of my areas of interest is spatial/geometric representations of musical relationships.  The fact that iBooks Author can accommodate moveable 3D models almost gets me to ignore the footnote problem. Some musical spaces represented in three dimensions are just too complicated to ever be meaningfully represented in a set of 2D pictures.

So yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!


One thought on “iBooks Author: in which we enter the swirl of controversy

  1. […] textbooks. iBooks Author certainly lends itself to embedded media within the flow of text (see my thoughts on iBooks Author), and I imagine other ebook-creation software and formats do as well. Not being […]

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