When Encountering the Talking Dog

For many years a colleague of mine had a quotation on her whiteboard that said:

When encountering the talking dog, take time to marvel at her accomplishment before correcting her grammar.

When I first experienced the video for the new Apple iBooks Author application, I felt that I was in the presence of a talking dog. The idea that a creator could so easily integrate a slideshow, a video, any animation or a host interactive features into a book brought back memories of those early PageMaker days when amateurs could first integrate text and graphics on a single page. Perhaps even more impressive was being able to output full motion, full color content to a internet device as dazzling as the new iPad. I recently downloaded my first iBook onto my iPad, and it is a very impressive volume when viewed on the new iPad. If you work within the Apple bubble, this is a pretty slick solution.

iBooks Author Editor

Electronic textbooks are a part of a class of technologies that are always just around the corner. Like the paperless office, the flying car, and the IDF chip implanted in your arm that remembers all your medications when you go to the doctor’s office, e-texts seem to make so much sense. Why in the world would a society continue to cut down trees, buy warehouses, and fill fleets of trucks to produce a product (text) that could be beamed wirelessly anyplace in the world for free? Hundreds of books can be stored on a device that weighs a pound and a half and runs all day on a single charge of the battery. I recently downloaded my first iBook onto my iPad. The volume was written by Mac power user David Sparks using iAuthor, and it really a very impressive volume when viewed on the new iPad.

We’re beginning to see evidence that the trend toward electronic texts is catching on in the wild. I had sixteen students in my most recent grad school class, admittedly a tech-savvy group, and half of them used some sort of an e-reader or electronic device to be able to access materials during the class. There was plenty of diversity in the devices chosen – Kindles, iPads, and even a Barnes & Noble Nook. Several of the traditionalists – those who used laptops – used the Kindle application to read at least some of the materials. I personally tried the fair and balanced approach, ordering half the books as paperbacks and half to read on my iPad.


Image: pile of books, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from user lwr.

Confession time: While I like the idea of carrying a pile of 50 books on a device that weighs a pound, I still haven’t gotten the hang of reading difficult works on the the iPad. One of the central readings of the class was Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Your Brain. It’s a well researched, tightly structured, volume that required some serious underlining, Post-it noting, and dog earring to be able to follow the argument. Even that wasn’t enough; it took colored pens and sketch paper for me to feel that I really saw the “picture” that Carr was communicating. (Then I had to deal with the whole issue of whether or not I agreed with what he claimed, but that’s a topic for another post.) The students, however, seemed perfectly comfortable moving from one book to the other as we were discussing them in class. The fact that they didn’t have page numbers if they were using electronic versions didn’t seem to make much difference in their ability to keep up. (How to effectively cite e-texts remains a thorny issue for style books and dissertation advisors.)

Correcting the Grammar

As usual Apple is taking the lead in the way on making the content creation process simple, elegant and easy to use. Apple’s software, with its proprietary approach to its products, may lead the way in this area, but it certainly isn’t going to be a long-term solution for colleges and universities. But the launch of these new resources by a company with Apple’s resources and visibility has been an important catalyst to bring e-text issues to the attention of many educators and policy makers who previously haven’t paid much attention to them. (I’m one of them.)

Heated discussions have arisen regarding Apple’s proprietary intentions towards e-texts and the education market.  Back in April, U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and several publishers for price-fixing e-books. Though Apple has yet to settle regarding this lawsuit as of the writing of this post, Apple has also been the center of other debates over the cost and accessibility of e-texts, as well as who should profit from them.  Any e-texts created by users of the iBook Authors app and sold for profit by the author can only be sold through Apple’s iBookstore, according to the iBook Authors Application’s End User Licence Agreement.  E-texts created using iBook Authors also can only be read on the iPad. Although you may create it using your Mac computer, you cannot read it using your computer, only an iPad.

These new initiatives are providing a renewed interest in “iTunes U,” a resource for accessing e-textbooks, lectures, and even entire “courses” via the iTunes store.  Of course, all of these offerings are only accessible via an iTunes U app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.  Through iBooks Author, we have the power to easily create e-texts, but only read them on an iPad, and through iTunes U, we can distribute and access learning resources shared by others, but only if we own an Apple device.  Knowing all of these facts about how Apple’s market of educational tools and resources limits us to using Apple devices makes it unappealing to many users.  But, if we’re interested in acquiring and creating digital textbooks for student use, what other alternatives to Apple are there?

Alternatives to Apple

People interested in authoring e-books can use any number of applications for e-book creation, including the familiar Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign.  Of course, these options don’t have the same sleek usability and ease in integrating images and videos as iBooks Author (as advertised by Apple), but they can be used to produce e-books that people can read on any device.  Alternative access to e-books, including digital textbooks, also exists. Unglue.it is one example of a recent project to provide free e-books to readers, through asking for pledges to donate money to buy free public e-book access to various titles, including textbooks. Another resource is College Open Textbooks, a non-profit collaboration founded to give access to affordable digital textbooks.  These are just a few examples of alternatives to Apple – and we’ll see many others as the conversation on e-texts continue.

Will it be Apple?

2012 is looking to be a pivotal year for students, authors, and publishers, as we finally reform entrenched textbook practices that fail everyone, but especially fail our students. Hundreds of millions are being allocated to author Open Educational Resources, Apple is credibly seeking to apply its platform and transform the textbook business starting with K–12, and universities are taking the lead in cutting money-saving deals directly with publishers. As colleges and universities are subjected to increasing scrutiny about rising costs, cost and access to course materials will become an increasing concern for public universities.


About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.


  1. Ann Marie Stock says:

    Thanks Gene! Very timely as I’m in DC teaching the New Media Summer Institute. We’ve visited a variety of organizations where this is being explored…

    • Gene Roche says:

      Thanks, Ann Marie. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the organizations you’re working with–either when you get back to the ‘burg or maybe in some virtual way. Your institute program looks great–lots of us are jealous of your students!

  2. Gene Roche says:

    Thanks, Marc,

    I think that we’re going to see lots of activity as faculty confront the high cost of electronic materials. The issue is a complicated one–as the comments on your post on Cosmic Variance demonstrate so well. We’ll look forward to to hearing more about how your students respond to the book. Thanks for sharing this with us. -GR

  3. Marc Sher says:

    P.S. We are using the free book in Physics 107 this fall, so 180 students will save roughly $200 each.

  4. Marc Sher says:

    Gene—see my post at Cosmic Variance (this is a popular science blog that receives over half a million “unique” viewers per month). It’s at