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Grading Apple's digital textbook technology

Joel Mathis | May 29, 2013
Shortly after his world history students began a pilot program testing a digital textbook for the iPad, Ken Halla noticed something different: His students were actually reading their textbooks.

Waiting on schools: At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mary Cullinane, chief content officer and executive vice president, says her company is ready to push iBooks and other digital textbooks when more schools are ready to buy.

"Once the early adopters demonstrate the validity of the opportunity, you'll see more folks come on board," she said, "but that transition hasn't happened yet."

How digital textbooks are being used
>Where iBooks have made inroads, it appears schools have found a variety of ways to use them in the classroom:

As textbooks that are better than, well, textbooks:  This may seem obvious, as it's what Apple clearly was aiming for when it launched the service. But the same educators who complain about the lack of available content also offer high praise for the iBooks that do exist.

"We want them to be interactive, we want them to have videos embedded, we want them to be easy to purchase," said Eric Anderson, director of information technology for Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California. His school has tested Chemistry and Biology iBooks from Pearson this year. Both iBook editions cost $15 per copy.

"This is our model book," Anderson said of the science iBooks. "If every book on our campus was like this, we would be thrilled."

As easy collectors of custom content: Teachers have never relied entirely on textbooks. Often they cobble together lessons out of worksheets and other reading materials that fade as copies are made from copies. College students have traditionally bought class "readers" filled with excerpts and articles.

Now? If teachers find an article or a PDF that illustrates their point, they can plug it into iBooks Author and distribute custom-tailored, in-house digital supplements for their students. Little of this content is original material, though, so none of it finds its way to the iBookstore, where it might set off a copyright claim.

"They don't really have a set textbook, so the little bits and pieces that they've found to teach from, that's the way they pull it all together," Brad Bergsma, chief information officer for Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland said of the computer graphics instructors at his school.

"For the faculty that has been using it, aggregation has been a key driver," he said. "Rather than run off a four-page PDF, they take it and dress it up with some video and pictures."

For student presentations: At Perelman Jewish Day School's middle school in Philadelphia--where the iPad program is sponsored by the Kohelet Foundation's SmartSchool program--teachers have put iBooks Author into the hands of students to create their own multimedia presentations, often shared with classrooms via AirPlay over Apple TV.


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