The new iBooks and education

Saturday, January 21st, 2012 Tech

[So I had just finished posting the following comment on a technology website:]

Maybe I’m in the minority but I find this whole development [Apple’s new iBooks textbook technology] very disquieting.

I remember when a schoolbook or textbook was a book—an inanimate, text-based object that you, the student, had to penetrate with your own intellect and discipline.

When I was in elementary school and middle school in the 1970s there were several forays into “programmed learning” and other proto-multimedia “courses of study,” in which conventional textbooks were replaced with more interactive materials. The results were not good; the techniques were gimmicky and the teachers inevitably felt constrained by the “invisible rails” guiding their classes in pre-set patterns that were imposed by the teaching materials.

Admittedly I went to reasonably good private schools with comparatively ample budgets, but I’m sure the same principles hold true, whatever the era or the tax bracket: a teacher has to teach, creatively and forcefully, using the teaching materials as an aid or a crutch, and never as the main armature of an educational technique.

I accept that today’s students don’t ever have to look things up alphabetically or go to libraries to do basic research (and the documented, countrywide scholastic panic during this week’s Wikipedia blackout demonstrates why), but can’t students be expected to deal with a conventional textbook, and all the challenges it presents? Shouldn’t a student have to come to grips with Euclidean geometry by reading paragraphs and looking at line drawings (rather than watching animations)? Shouldn’t a student be required to read fifteen or twenty consecutive paragraphs about (say) the Louisiana Purchase or the Peloponnesian War, rather than simply seeing video clips, animated maps and nonlinear sidebar explanations?

We’re living in a century in which nobody has to know how to spell, how to find a restaurant, how to get oriented when lost, how to translate simple phrases into other languages (or make metric conversions or perform simple arithmetic). Should students really be deprived of what will, for many, be their one opportunity in life to at least attempt to think for themselves?

Obviously Apple’s new technology is both economically liberating (for those who need to buy textbooks) and potentially improves the conventional “textbook” model (since obsolete materials can be replaced instantly). But can’t all those iPad screens be primarily exposing students to real books and not interactive multimedia programs?

[And then right after posting the above, I saw this headline:]

Student math scores jump 20% with Apple iPad; transforms classroom education