Thoughts on Apple’s Education Announcement: Tools for Innovative Teaching and Learning

I’m really excited about Apple’s Education announcement, which just wrapped up earlier this morning. Steve Jobs famously said to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that there are three industries he would have liked to reinvent: textbooks, digital photography, and television. This announcement marks Apple’s first salvo towards completing Jobs’ unfinished vision. As an educator working in a 1:1 iPad school, I am amazed by the changes this device has already wrought in our 5th grade curriculum since September 2011. Students are teaching each other, problem-solving on their own, thinking creatively and producing content that shows a deeper understanding of the concepts than traditional pen-and-paper tests (for more information on our 1:1 iPad initiative, go here). The idea of authentic assessments is not new by any means, and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have been doing the work of bringing real-world applications into the classroom for a number of years, however the tools available now – like Apple’s iPad – are changing fundamentally how we teach and how students learn. I presume that 1:1 programs like the one at ACDS are still rare in the world of public and private education in the United States, and although the adoption rate is rapidly progressing, access to the latest and greatest still remains the lot of the privileged few. The lack of equity in our educational system remains an issue – the haves continue to receive more and the have-nots continue to struggle with outdated resources.

So why get excited now? Aren’t companies like Kno, Chegg, and others already trying to digitize textbooks? Yes, however they simply don’t have the muscle power to bend other companies to its will, or the intuition and user interface expertise Apple has demonstrated time and again (for instance, see iBooks Author as a companion creation app to make your own textbook!). Textbooks are and have been old technology that have been the mainstay of any school or university environment and little has been done to further their advance in today’s digital age. Books are static, non-portable, very heavy running into hundreds of pages and known to cause back problems in children, and not available on-demand. Phil Schiller, Senior Vice President of Apple’s Worldwide Product Marketing, said as much in his introduction at today’s event: besides content, textbooks today are not portable, durable, interactive, or searchable – all things that I take for granted when I read a book now on my ebook reader. So why can’t textbooks be and do the same?

21st century teaching and learning demands portable, interactive content (see the demo here, along with the rest of Apple’s keynote) that allows for genuine collaboration and flattens the learning. One of the features I’m most excited about the textbooks that Apple demo-ed today is the instant feedback feature on end of chapter quizzes! Imagine a student taking that quiz and knowing immediately whether they got it right or wrong. The physical textbook allows for none of that. Another feature would allow students to manipulate 3-D images of a DNA molecule or take a virtual tour of the Colosseum. To top it all, the price of textbooks sold through the iBookstore will remain at $14.99 or less – another example of Apple’s power in bending traditional companies to follow its lead.

And what about making your own ebooks? Perhaps students can be engaged in learning a concept using the digital textbook, and their unit assessment requires that student or a group of them take that same concept and create an ebook teaching it to a different audience!

I do know of some school leaders and teachers who are doing what I suggest above and more, but perhaps this push by Apple now will make innovative teaching more visible and accessible, and dare I say, truly individualized if schools decide to publish their own classroom texts rather than buy the standard one.

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