Apple Education Event: New iTunes U App Helps Teachers and Students Communicate

 @redletterdave on January 19 2012 1:11 PM

At the Guggenheim Museum in New York on Thursday, Apple revolutionized the education industry with its new iBooks 2 app, which allows users to read, search and mark-up digital textbooks with ease, and a new platform called iBooks Author, which lets anyone easily create and publish their own e-books. Apple's senior VP of marketing Phil Schiller also debuted the new iTunes U app, which lets teachers upload course materials, lessons, syllabi and even books from iBooks Author to their students via the iPad.

In the on-stage demonstration, Schiller displayed a real course from Duke University for the Guggenheim audience, showing a bookshelf with a complete syllabus with office hours and a list of assignments. When the professor decides to add an assignment or change a due date, notifications are immediately sent to students letting them know that the change has been made.

Teachers also have an opportunity to share materials with students via iTunes U, such as course materials, links, articles and websites, and they can also add notes throughout the semester, such as study guides or homework assignments. Teachers can also provide more in-depth video material, giving the end user the option to download or stream the video to watch it.

Prior to Thursday's presentation, Apple had already given six universities full access to the new iTunes U platform, including Stanford University and UCLA, and these schools had created over 100 fully-online courses with the iTunes U tools. Following the event, Apple is making iTunes U available for K-12 schools, and is releasing a full online course to students and anyone interested in iTunes U's capabilities, absolutely free.

Teachers can also share their books that they write and build within the new iBooks Author app, which was also announced Thursday. iBooks Author allows anyone to write not just textbooks, but also novels, cookbooks, or even children's books. Any book you can think of, you can build with iBooks Author. The application's simple drag-and-drop interface makes it easy to place and alter text, which automatically wraps pictures and movies, which can also be resized on the fly. Documents written in Microsoft Word are also quickly scanned by iBooks Author, which then intelligently lays out the text in sections and headers in the book. The application also makes it easy to add term definitions to any part of the book.

Apple made its iBooks Author platform accessible to most developers by allowing authors to write their books in JavaScript or HTML if they wish. 

Not sure how your book looks? The incredible preview feature in iBooks Author allows the user to build the book in real-time and see it right on the iPad. They can also publish the book directly to the iBookstore directly from the app.

It is the most advanced, most powerful, yet most fun e-book authoring tool ever created, Schiller said. Every subject, every grade level, for every student.

Apple's late co-founder and chairman Steve Jobs had high hopes to alleviate the pained backs of the higher education masses in the late 80s and early 90s; 20 years later, Jobs's legacy lives on in Apple, which believes it can make another ding in the education universe with its free apps announced Thursday.

Apple's VP of public marketing Phil Schiller had startling news for the audience: The U.S. is ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math. Only 70 percent of freshmen graduate from U.S. colleges and univerisities in four years, but Americans aren't stupid, just uninspired. There is clearly a disconnect between students and their education.

Schiller said that the problem with textbooks is not the amazing content, but the weight of the physical book, and its many inefficiencies, such as the ability to easily and fluidly search for content. Textbooks also need to last five or six years when they're written before new editions come out, and they're not very interactive, either.

The iPad, which some teachers have called a miracle device, is a big opportunity for students to get excited about learning again. The iPad has already demonstrated it can help children with learning disabilities make leaps in bounds in their development, and schools have already invested heavily in Apple's high-end tablet. Roughly 1.5 million iPads are currently in use in educational institutions.

At that point, Schiller introduced iBooks 2, which has a new textbook experience for the iPad. The on-stage demo showed big and beautiful images, and the easy ability to search for content. When a user taps on a word, they can choose to go straight to the glossary and index section in the back of the book. Navigating pages is easy and fluid, and the end of each chapter includes a full review with pictures and questions. If you want the answers to the review questions, just tap the answer button next to the question to receive instant feedback.

Note taking is also incredibly easy with iBooks 2. Apple now lets users highlight any text on the page using just your finger. To make building study materials less time-consuming, iBooks 2 immediately and automatically takes your highlighted notes and turns them into flash cards for later studying.

The book is theirs, Schiller said. [Students] can mark it up and not worry.

Apple's iBookstore added a textbook category on Thursday, so users can buy any e-textbooks through Apple's one-click purchasing system. If users don't have enough room for your entire library on your iOS device, or if they plan on buying a new iPad, any and all pre-purchased books are available to download again via iCloud.

Schiller added that in order to get this entire digital education ecosystem into the hands of every author, iBooks 2, iBooks Author and iTunes U are all free apps on the Mac App Store starting Thursday. Apple has also partnered with several publishers in its new textbook endeavors, including Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Pearson Education will be selling textbooks for algebra, biology, environmental science and geometry, two of which will be available immediately. McGraw-Hill has books for algebra, biology, chemistry, geometry and physics, all of which are available today, too. Dorling Kindersley (DK) Publishing also launched books for kids, including Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life and My First ABC. The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation also is offering its biology textbook Life on Earth today.

Jobs had long hoped to bring sweeping changes to higher education for much of his life. When he left Apple and launched NeXT in 1986, Jobs wanted the company's first computer -- an all-black 1 ft x 1 ft x 1ft magnesium cube -- to be designed specifically for higher education establishments and what Jobs called aggressive end users.

What we realized was that higher ed wants a personal mainframe, Jobs said at the NeXT Computer launch in October 1988. There has not been an advancement in the state of the art of printed book technology since Gutenberg.

Jobs's NeXT Computer was one of the very first computers to include Shakespeare's works, a dictionary, thesaurus, and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and the first to make all of these books searchable. It was this same NeXT platform that Tim Berners-Lee created the world's first server for the World Wide Web in 1991.

Before Jobs died on Oct. 5, 2011, he told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he still had desires to transform the textbook market.

[Jobs] believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction, Isaacson wrote. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don't have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around.

'The iPad would solve that,' he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple.

'The process by which states certify texbooks is corrupt,' he said. 'But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don't have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent the whole process and save money.'

On Thursday, Apple executed Jobs's wishes to perfection. By making the apps free and easy-to-use, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company single-handedly saved the aching backs of students all over the world. By eliminating the inefficiencies of textbooks but saving the idiosyncrasies of textbook study habits, Apple did the impossible by making textbooks interesting, interactive, and most importantly, fun.

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