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Apple's Textbooks Improve Everything but the Text

Apple's Textbooks Improve Everything but the Text

Apple's selection of textbooks in its new iBooks Store is still relatively light, but one of the more popular selections so far is Life on Earth, a biology textbook. If this book's any indication, it looks like Apple's approach to e-textbooks will present students with new and visually stimulating ways to learn from a book -- though as far as text goes, it's mostly your typical dry prose.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
01/30/12 5:00 AM PT

Life on Earth, an e-book by Gael McGill, Edward O. Wilson and Morgan Ryan, is available for free on iBooks.

Life on Earth
The Life on Earth iBooks-based textbook sports multimedia and interactive content on many pages and shows off the power of lush graphics woven with text, video and interactive illustrations.

After Apple announced that it had "reinvented" textbooks at its education media event in New York earlier in the month, I knew I had to take one for a spin myself. I downloaded the new iBooks 2 iPad app and launched it to get to the refreshed iBooks Store. I tapped the big "Introducing Textbooks" graphic and started looking.

There were eight titles available, covering topics like Algebra, Geometry and Physics. Seven of them cost US$14.99, which seems like a steal, but I'm not personally interested in learning Algebra 1 all over again, for example.

E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth, however, is free -- at least, a preview and a sample chapter is free. Good enough for me. I downloaded all 965 MB of it, and this is only for a partial e-book. One of the other e-books, Pearson's Biology, boasts a print length of 1,791 pages and a digital size of 2.77 GB.

If Apple really wants to replace heavy textbook-laden backpacks on small children with iPads loaded with digital textbooks, the company better ditch its low-end 16 GB iPad 2 models pronto and cram some more storage into them. Do the math, and your average school kid might have to choose to leave some digital textbooks home on their PCs -- and that's even if they deleted Infinity Blade first!

But Is It Any Good?

Yes. Yes it is.

E.O. Wilson's showcase textbook is amazing, actually. The flicking, zooming and tapping is tantalizingly fun, the graphics are rich and vibrant, and the text is typical textbook: Readable, sometimes engaging, and sometimes written in a stultifying, attention-destroying way.

Take, for instance, this paragraph:

The locations of today's major biomes are much the same as when your great-grandfather was alive and will be the same when your great-grandchildren are born. The detailed features of a given biome, however -- the specific plant and animal composition and degree of wildness -- are likely to change, in large part due to human activity, which has become the most important influence on present-day ecological systems worldwide.

Really? I'm sure you can find some terrible paragraphs that I've written before, but these two sentences smacked me upside the head with their dense ability to convey so little. I can't imagine anything in that graph resonating with 99 percent high school readers.

On a side note, when I wanted to pull out an example for this review, I found that I could highlight the text, but I could not copy it to paste it. Nor could I email the section to anyone. I guess this means that I can't copy it and paste it into a report that I have due tomorrow, either.

I could, however, highlight the text with a virtual marker, which has pleasantly rough and random edges, as if it were highlighted with a real physical marker. I could change the highlight color from yellow to green or other colors, as well as underline the text in red. If I want to note something, I can add a note, which brings up the onscreen keyboard. Closing the note leaves a little note icon off to the side of the page in the margin.

The highlighting and notes ability is cool and handy, of course, and I can see it being well-used by readers.

Devaluing Text?

I doubt that many people fall in love with textbook prose, but it's clear that the focus on future iBooks-based textbooks will likely be interactive gizmos, quizzes and videos.

In Life on Earth, these features really shine. There are plenty of quick, engaging videos, but more importantly, there are video graphics that, for instance, let small pieces of our biology be shown in a rotating 3D image. And what about molecules and protein strands? If the graphics I was looking at are true, well then, those little pieces and parts are constantly jiggling, not unlike the movement we see when we tap and hold down an icon on the home screens on our iPads and iPhones.

Previously, I never really considered that our insides were constantly jiggling in tiny, fast ways, despite watching all those string theory TV shows on PBS a few years ago.

Other elements can also be nicely interactive, which makes me realize that I don't yet have the vocabulary to name all these new interactive graphic appy modules. Maybe the new iBooks Author app for Mac OS X names them in the tools.

In one example, we learn about the pieces and parts of insects, which have six legs, a head, a thorax and an abdomen. They also have antennae and wings, perhaps. So, in one interactive graphic, you could tap the thorax on a model insect to see it simultaneously highlighted in three different kinds of bugs. Tap the abdomen and the thorax will deselect in order to show off the abdomens.

The action of touching and seeing different results while learning this sort of thing might make learning easier and faster. I don't know that for a fact, but it sure seems like it could be true.

All in all, if you care about textbooks, iPads and learning, you need to at least check out this free book. If you learn something, that's a bonus, of course. After you're done, delete it to free up the nearly 1 GB of storage you just gobbled up on your iPad. As for my four-star rating out of five, I just couldn't see giving this book a full five-star rating for one reason: The "text" in textbooks is still important, too.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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