OPINION: Beneath the Excitement of iBooks 2

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Image: Apple

Last week, Apple pulled the wraps off its latest offerings, iBooks 2 and iBooks author in a publicised event in New York City. Whilst the announcement has proved exciting and potentially world changing, digging a little deeper, there’s probably just as much to be concerned about as there is to be contented about.

Ebooks are certainly the next big thing in reading, but I doubt they’ll ever fully replace paper

I’m just going to start by stating the shallowest of my sentiments – this announcement is darn exciting and will no doubt change the state of education and of course, reading as a whole. But, whether it will change education and reading for the better or for worse is something we can’t be entirely sure of.

Ebooks are certainly the next big thing in reading, but I doubt they’ll ever fully replace paper, not in our lifetime. We will always want books, I will always want the option of an actual book, libraries will never just be online catalogues. It’s not about nostalgia at all, well maybe a little, but certainly not all of it. The reason why books have lasted so many centuries as a technological medium for knowledge distribution is because they simply provide so many practical benefits which are irreplaceable through technological innovation.

Dieter Bohn of The Verge recently published a lengthy feature titled ‘Sorry iBooks, paper books still win on specs‘, which outlines all the books practical benefits which can’t be ported digitally due to the very limitations of technology itself. Here’s a few crucial ones: books don’t crash, books don’t run out of power, books have a consistent user interface, books are compatible with every nook and cranny of our daily lives.

Sure eBooks exhibit traits that are impossible for paper to ever adopt, but that’s how it is, books and ebooks are just compromises of an impossible optimum which is why we still need both.

Image: » Zitona «/Flickr (Creative Commons)

People are always afraid of adopting unproven things and letting go of the past

To play the nostalgia card by saying that there is a nothing quite like curling up with a good book, turning paper pages and the smell of an old book isn’t really worthy of awarding a point to the good old traditional book. For the most part, these claims are distorted by a desire to cling onto the past.

People are always afraid of adopting unproven things and letting go of the past, especially when it’s something like the binded book which has served us so well for countless years. In the hypothetical situation that the world regressed from iPads to paper books, we’d look nostalgically back at the swift beauty of swiping to turn a page and puke at the thought of touching paper.

But then again, I feel that eBooks do have the capacity to devalue intellect. Despite being a grace to the spread of knowledge, the fact that it is now so easy to publish books with iBooks author and distribute them freely, it eliminates much of what is special to have a book published under your name. Additionally, it potentially makes it harder to find genuinely good books, and easier to stumble across one that someone may have simply published for a school project.

In many ways, it’s comparable to what email has done to letters, making it easier to receive and dispatch letters, yet also a lot easier for spammers to get to you. And perhaps also what blogging has done to traditional paper journalism.

On the education side of things, I can’t be one hundred percent certain that interactive iBook textbooks is truly what education has been looking for. IBook textbooks are indisputably a preferable alternative to the fat textbooks of today – interesting, useful, engaging, it’s all there for the iBook textbook. What’s concerning is having the iPad in class at all.

What’s concerning is having the iPad in class at all… Apple’s interactive textbook is a double edged sword

There’s a reason why cellphones are generally not permitted for use in class despite their potential utility as a learning tool, it’s because electronics are distracting; pair that with the fact that learning subjects that a student dislikes is boring and you have a fairly tasty recipe for procrastination, in class texting, and Facebook-ing. Interactive books will never make a student interested in a subject that inherently bores them in the same way that playing Halo won’t make me a fan of guns.

Apple’s interactive textbook is a double edged sword, empowering engaged students to learn in new and better ways, but for the kids who aren’t really engaged in the first place, it’s just a brand new way to get away from class. By trying to emulate the quick access and fast paced immediacy of current technology in the new interactive textbooks, we’re also emulating the negatives – the constant contingency to lose focus.

If we want to fix education, we can’t simply implement books that move and talk, we need to change the curriculum so that students don’t have to do science or math if they simply don’t give a sh*t.

Interactive textbooks aren’t a step forward for education, but more like a step to the side. IBooks and eBooks are a step to the side for reading too, just another alternative that is appropriate for certain use cases but can’t replace paper books which are appropriate for other use cases. I can’t really sum this up any better than Dieter Bohn did in his article on The Verge, but if we ever want digital to become the dominant medium for books, we need to make sure we can try recreate at least some of the better things about paper into electronics.

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