The Apple textbook

Apple have announced a free application for making textbooks, along with a push to provide commercial textbooks from existing publishers through their iBooks delivery medium.

It looks as if commercial books produced in this way will remain entirely restricted to reading on Apple hardware.  (There’s more flexibility for free books.)

Apple have had an increasing reach in educational settings for a while now, particularly in the US but also in many UK schools. But of their various pieces of educational wheeling and dealing, this has had by far the most publicity, and so far it hasn’t all been good.

This move has a slightly sinister feel. I can hope that consumers might prove less sanguine about locking their children in to proprietary systems than they are about locking themselves in. Perhaps, in hindsight, we will see this as the point where the wider perception of Apple started to creep across the line from ubiquitous but helpful to insinuatingly controlling.

I doubt it, though. Textbooks are a mess, expensive and cumbersome for the reader and impenetrable as a market. This is a move to make textbook production simpler, make textbooks cheaper, and bring more of the visual and interactive mechanisms children are becoming used to into the formal school environment—while working with technology that many schools are already using and more are considering. What could seem better?

This combination of an immediately appealing proposition with an unprecedentedly strict control regime is an Apple hallmark. I regret the failure of more open systems to make more inroads into education—a failure I feel like I’ve played my own part in. Even so, we can try to resist a little by at least encouraging variety. To encourage our children to use every kind of system, to explore, to share, to build, and to understand that a computer is a complex human and social construction in itself rather than just an enabling object.