Last week Apple announced two new eReader plat­forms – iBooks and iAu­thor – that the elec­tronics giant hopes will mod­ernize learning and “rein­vent text­books.” We asked Matthew Gray, an assis­tant pro­fessor of the­ater in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, who was recently quoted in ArsTech­nica about Apple’s foray into text­books, to com­ment on the new soft­ware and how it will change the face of edu­ca­tion as we know it.

What is the goal of Apple’s new eReader plat­forms and how do they differ from other ebooks?

Apple’s iBooks 2 aims to expand the ref­er­en­tial abil­i­ties of tra­di­tional ebooks. For example, users could click on Shakespeare’s name while reading a book about Eliz­a­beth 1st and be linked to a whole host of addi­tional con­tent — videos about the Bard’s life and plays, online pic­ture gal­leries of his house or musical clips from songs used in his plays. iBooks 2 can also ref­er­ence itself, directing users to rel­e­vant con­tent within the text. Since ebooks take up very little memory, iBooks 2 would also act as a mobile library, enabling stu­dents to carry their entire text­book col­lec­tion with them.

iBooks Author is Apple’s free appli­ca­tion for users to write and create their own ebooks. Just as ‘Garage­Band’ turned (poten­tially) every­body into a recording artist, iBooks Author has the poten­tial to turn all writers into cir­cu­lated authors. If a writer can code in javascript and html, he could create per­son­al­ized ‘wid­gets’ for his ebooks, har­nessing the mas­sive poten­tial for con­nec­tivity. Addi­tion­ally, stu­dents can con­struct their text­books from infor­ma­tion in class and pro­fes­sors can turn a syl­labus into a book acces­sible to stu­dents at other institutions.

What are some of the ways this tech­nology could affect stu­dents in the future?

Stu­dents could cer­tainly reap rewards from this devel­op­ment. It will, how­ever, only become a sus­tain­able edu­ca­tional tool if hard­ware costs are dealt with swiftly and com­pre­hen­sively. This has led some to spec­u­late that Apple (and other hard­ware devel­opers like Amazon’s Kindle plat­form) may market a device specif­i­cally for stu­dents, which would be cheaper and could be con­trolled by a teacher’s device.

Prices of text­books will have to change one way or another, and that will impact how stu­dent loans can be dis­trib­uted. Stu­dents will have less to carry to class (a point Apple empha­sized in its announce­ment ear­lier this week), and will be able to gain access to infor­ma­tion and mate­rial faster via the Internet. It remains to be seen how this would affect col­lege bookstores.

Most impor­tantly, ‘surfing the internet’ will become an increased threat to stu­dents’ learning. Tech­nology like this actu­ally places greater respon­si­bility on the stu­dent to focus on what the task at hand may be. Retaining and reciting knowl­edge will become less of a marker of intel­li­gence and ability, but instead a kind of ‘tool’ that may, or may not, be useful.

How will this tech­nology affect pro­fes­sors and uni­ver­si­ties at large?

A professor’s syl­labus and cur­riculum could soon become entirely open-​​source and even link to sim­ilar cur­ricula at other uni­ver­si­ties, placing increased emphasis on pro­fes­sors to remain cur­rent and rel­e­vant, if only in syl­labus ‘design.’ This also means that the role of pro­fes­sors could change, affecting their rela­tion­ships with stu­dents. Since eBooks pro­vide access to mas­sive amounts of infor­ma­tion in many dif­ferent for­mats, stu­dents will drive their own learning. So rather than pro­fes­sors being the ‘pos­ses­sors of knowl­edge,’ they will assist stu­dent in ana­lyzing infor­ma­tion and deciding what to pay atten­tion to. Testing that data and inves­ti­gating hypotheses will become more impor­tant, increasing the value of lab­o­ra­tory, studio and per­for­mance spaces, despite the idea that eBooks could under­mine the need for class­room space.

This also poten­tially expands the impor­tance of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary projects. The strength of this tech­nology lies in how many links it can make and how it can present one idea in many dif­ferent forms, helping learners of many dif­ferent levels and learning styles. Uni­ver­si­ties have been derided as har­bin­gers of an out­dated form of edu­ca­tion where knowl­edge is turned into dis­ci­plines that are dis­con­nected from all others around them.

eText­books, how­ever, foster inter-​​connectivity, so this may impel more uni­ver­si­ties to empha­size inter­dis­ci­pli­nary work.

Finally, there is the specter of cor­po­rate adver­tising on campus. There are poten­tial upsides to this — per­haps, for example, Apple will train pro­fes­sors to code in javascript/​html in exchange for us using their devices in the class­room. The down­sides could be logos or ads in the class­room and per­son­al­ized adver­tising for stu­dents on their reading devices.
It is cer­tain, how­ever, that things will change. We can make that change a pos­i­tive one if we begin to pre­pare now.