Apple’s education event just ended, and just as Ars Technica said, Apple announced better support for textbooks, as well as a textbook authoring tool. The textbook authoring tool is heavily inspired by Keynote and Pages, and hence, I already know it’s going to be top-notch and very pleasant to use. In addition, the company also repositioned iTunes U as a Blackboard competitor. As great as all these new tools are, several large red flags went up in my mind: I remember what it was like being the only student who didn’t use Windows. Update: “Any e-textbook author that wants access to the iPad-toting masses must make his or her work an exclusive to iBooks 2.”
While the textbooks Apple demonstrated* today are nothing new, it’s the tool for creating them that’s going to make all the difference. I have long regarded Keynote and Pages (haven’t used Numbers to any serious degree) as two of the world’s finest pieces of software in existence, and since iBooks Author is based on them, I’m assuming it’s going to be just as good. To boot, they made it free. As in, no cost. Absolutely amazing.
The textbooks themselves look great, but in reality, we’ve seen similar and just as good-looking textbooks before. Still, Apple is raising the bar here by working closely with several of the US’ largest textbook publishers, and by keeping the price at a maximum of $14.99. Yes, you read that right. Say what you want about Apple, but if they pull that off – hats off.
Still, despite all this cool stuff, I just can’t get excited about it. “Oh, what a surprise, Thom not excited about Apple,” some of you will say, “I shall quickly run outside to check if the sky isn’t falling and bringing down the flying pigs.” That’s not what this is about though. This is about locking students into a single ecosystem, something I have the displeasure of having lots of experience with.
Back in 2004, when I started my university career, I was the only one in my year who did not use Windows. We’re looking at Psychology consisting of 350 students, and I literally was the only one who was not using Windows (one of our Psychology professors used Apple users as an example for certain theories. Go figure). Those were the dark, dark times of Windows XP (soon to be followed by the black abyss that was the Vista era), when I had left BeOS behind because it was outdated, and when Linux still needed Ubuntu to whip it into desktop shape. Using Windows XP after being used to BeOS… Well.
I was a Mac user, and used nothing but Macs. iMac G4 at home, iBook G4 on the go. My university was not prepared for that at all. It was a 100% Windows-only affair, with zero accommodations or even understanding for people who chose to run something else. Software was Windows-only, the websites required Internet Explorer (they wouldn’t even load in anything else), and the wireless network didn’t support anything other than Windows.
It was not fun. It was a constant struggle to get stuff to work.
It wasn’t until years later that my university’s IT department acknowledged the existence of software other than Windows and Internet Explorer. First, they added support for Firefox on Windows. Then support for the Mac came – but not for Safari. Linux remained an afterthought until my last two years or so of university (2009/2010 and 2010/2011). When Chrome came out, it took them a really long time to support it. And so on.
And I know my university wasn’t the only one.
This is why I’m worried about Apple’s newfound push into education. Everything Apple showed today is tied 100% to the Mac and iOS. There’s zero consideration for other platforms. What this means is that if Apple manages to get schools and universities behind its program, we’re going to see yet another generation of students locked into a single platform, with zero chance of breaking free. At least with the kind of lock-in I had to deal with I could mess with Linux to circumvent everything.
No such luck here, I’m afraid. This is an entirely closed system, with no way of getting out or opting to be different. You can’t use iTunes U on a Galaxy Tab. You can’t open books created with iBooks Author on a Playbook. Didn’t people freak out when Google integrated Google+ into search (which you can turn off)? So, what about Apple using its tablet monopoly to push into textbooks and locking students in? Where are the calls for government intervention now?
And this is about something way more precious than web search and social networking nonsense. This is about our children’s education. Do we really want students to be locked into a single eco-system, curated by Apple? What if a textbook on computer history puts Apple in a negative light? Will Apple allow it into its store?
I don’t want a future where an iPad and a Mac are mandatory in order to get an education. We should not want to go down this path. The openness of the web and the rising popularity of the Mac was finally wrestling education free from the Microsoft stranglehold – do we really want to set everything up so that the next generation of nerdy kids has to swear and curse because they want to use Android tablets in school? Did we learn nothing?
In my view, governments should mandate the use of 100% strictly open formats in schools and universities, so that students can decide for themselves which reader program they want to use, teachers aren’t locked into a single authoring tool, and students can opt for a cheaper or more expensive device. Lock-in in the consumer space is one thing, but in education?
My hope is that Apple will open up all this cool stuff to non-Apple devices, with open formats and the freedom to create competing software. I know hell will be freezing over by then, but hey, hope springs eternal.
* How delightfully ironic.