Apple's new vision of education

Can it do for learning what it did for music and mobile devices?

On Thursday, Apple made it clear that one of the next industries it hopes to disrupt and reinvent is education. It's an arena the company has a long history of working with: schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II.

While there have been pilot projects and full-scale deployments of the iPad as an educational tool, you can't say yet that it has truly revolutionized learning. While it's made researching information, viewing video, and working with interactive content more portable and more tactile, for mainstream education, many of those tasks have been available to desktops and laptops in the classroom for a generation.

Now, Apple has clearly set its sights on making the iPad a more fundamental part of the school experience -- and is out to transform that experience in the process.

iBooks 2

The newest version of iBooks offers students of all ages something that's more than the sum of its parts. In many ways, it simply consolidates all the learning tools technology had already brought to the classroom - audio and video, electronic texts, interactive quizzes, searchable indexes and glossaries, and the age-old ability to highlight and notate text for future reference. But, as Apple products often do, iBooks 2 not only consolidates features but pares them back to focus on the actual task at hand: learning.

This is what makes iBooks 2 and the handful of textbooks already available in the iBookstore unique among the many education tools that have come across computer screens over the past 30-plus years. There are features centered around the task of absorbing information, each tackling a subtly different way of learning -- visually through static and interactive graphics, by reading text, and through video clips. In typical Apple fashion, there are no unneeded bells and whistles.

The ability to highlight and take notes right in the text of a digital book is great by itself, and it certainly works better than scribbling in the margins or having to use a separate notebook because someone else will get the textbook during the next school year. Apple kept that feature relatively basic and focused on function. The ability to use notes as study cards is as simple and minimalist as it effective.

Having worked with schools and colleges for a decade as a technology professional, I'm most struck by the fact that no part of the iBooks 2 textbook interface is dumbed down or gimmicky. The experience respects that students are growing up as digital natives and don't need any Fisher-Price styling to learn. Instead, Apple stuck to its core minimalist aesthetic; the result brilliantly lets the content and the lessons take center stage, which makes the act of learning more effective and engaging.

iBooks Author

From my initial experience with Apple's new iBooks Author tool, I can say that the simplicity and effectiveness is astounding. Having worked with teachers and professors to develop digital curriculums (and having prepared and taught such cirriculae myself), iBooks Author makes the process surprisingly painless. While some might compare it to Apple's iWork, the closest analog I see is the company's now defunct iWeb application.

For educators and others interested in self-distribution of ebooks rather than sales through Apple's iBookstore, there's an option to simply export your books. Students and others can then use iTunes on a computer to add the book to their iPad, or it can be sent via email.

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