Technology for the sake of it: With negative remarks about Apple’s new education initiative

I hope it’s okay to say now that Steve Jobs has left us, but it seems like Apple’s education initiative is wrong-headed for all the reasons Kieran Healy cites. It’d be great if Apple could create an “actually good” version of course-management software, but as Kieran says, their idea of interactive textbooks seems like a rehash of Microsoft Encarta.

This leads me to a curmudgeonly observation: it seems to me that we often rush into new technology because it seems new and cool, without really thinking about what works best. Perhaps the Amish have the right idea, though their openness to new technology is probably a little too limited. Take the printed book, for example. Yes, it has obvious drawbacks — poor searchability above all. Yet for the primary purpose of actually reading, I don’t think we’re ever going to top it.

This is not to say, however, that e-books will inevitably fail — because the Western consumer seems more than content to embrace new technologies that actively undermine the purposes they supposedly serve. Take cell phones, for instance. They obviously serve a valuable purpose of allowing us to make phone calls “on the go.” Yet as phones, they’re miserable. I hate talking on cell phones, particularly indoors, which is where the majority of phone calls are made. We’d all probably be much happier with a landline, which never drops calls and has much clearer sound, supplemented by a cheap cell phone. As a society, however, we’ve all basically decided on the shittier option, presumably because it seems cooler or more convenient on some superficial level. Why keep the antiquated landline when I can make all my calls with a glorified tin can and string?

The same goes for wireless internet access. Again, it’s great for “surfing the web” “on the go.” But it’s nowhere near as reliable as an actual hardwired ethernet connection. Most of us, I’d say, don’t really move our laptops — and I’m going to leave my complaints about the universalization of laptops as an exercise for the reader — to more than two or three locations within our house, and it would not be any harder to wire a house for ethernet than it is to wire it for cable TV (i.e., jacks spread throughout the house). Yet because wireless seems cooler, and because plugging and unplugging occasionally is marginally inconvenient, we opt for the shittier option for all of our internet use, rather than as a helpful supplement for when we’re out of the house.

Of course, the biggest example ever is the individual automobile. The nation used to have a network of train lines and street cars that provided amazing freedom of motion, without requiring every adult to regularly operate a huge and dangerous piece of machinery and without requiring them to take on the sunk cost of the car, insurance, etc. The appeal of the car is obvious — flexibility and independence. Yet it’s only like that when only a small minority of people are actually driving cars. Instead of relying primarily on the robust network of shared means of transportation, supplemented by occasional use of cars for certain uses (i.e., deliveries, people living in rural areas, etc.), we as a society went for the shittier option that is making us miserable and destroying the environment on top of it.

People criticize the inefficiencies of a centrally planned economy like the Soviet Union, and there’s obviously truth to that — but sometimes I think the only real “benefit” of decentralized capitalist dynamism is that there’s no one to blame when the destructive equilibrium is inevitably reached.

24 thoughts on “Technology for the sake of it: With negative remarks about Apple’s new education initiative

  1. You may have a humanities bias here, because for science texts, being able to have animations or interactive graphs/diagrams would be quite useful and potentially a quantum leap forward in the utility of scientific textbooks, which can be of limited use without a teacher.

  2. Hill, while it might be a humanities bias, can you explain why something whose benefits appear to be only for one portion of a modern university (i.e. natural science departments) be considered ‘revolutionary’ for the entirety of the university? As Adam remarked about wifi, it’s great for laptops ‘on-the-go’ but not so much for anything stationary (like a desktop computer and even many laptops). Is it because the innovation sounds great in and of itself as an innovation?

    As a tangent, I’d like to hear what others think of current course management systems like BlackBoard (which Healy talks about). I’m not sure if here is a good place, so I made a post at my blog just in case.

  3. Perhaps the individual automobile became popular because it gave us something to talk about: traffic. The cell phone was made so we can talk about traffic while sitting in it. I haven’t figured out a use for wifi yet.

  4. I’m not sure why I would have to defend anything here. In my opinion, courses centered mainly around primary source texts aren’t a part of the “textbook” debate, since they don’t use textbooks. Of course, reading those primary sources in book form is fine. Although being able to carry around all of those books on a Kindle or iPad is pretty cool, especially with the highlighting or note-taking features. Textbooks, however, are generally awful and in some cases, an obvious racket wherein their obsolescence in five years (sometimes less) is a feature, not a bug. This system seems to build in an expectation of updates as necessary, which could be nice. Furthermore, the ability to have dynamic, interactive graphics would seem to be useful for any number of fields for which graphics at all would be useful.

    The more important question is what is it about this sort of thing that causes a certain personality type to get their panties in a wad. That has been the truly striking aspect of the announcement. I have yet to read a single useful comment in all of the ranting that has been done about this which was actually related to the prospect of electronic textbooks. It all has a very reactionary vibe to it.

  5. To spell out the humanities bias thing a bit more, it’s possible for those who have focused in the humanities that they rarely did any learning out of a textbook. For math and science classes, learning out of a textbook is a large component of the course, and in some cases, it basically doesn’t work at all because the medium is so limited or the textbook options are so poor. These limited and/or poor options frequently cost $1–200. If they could actually become a live option for self-instruction, it would indeed be revolutionary.

    Full disclosure: I’m an academic chemist, and the unique challenges of learning/teaching chemistry heavily inform my optimism for new technologies like this.

  6. If textbooks are generally so shitty in math and science, why rely on textbooks at all? Maybe the problem isn’t that Apple hadn’t yet come along to make the textbooks awesomely Applish — maybe science and math pedagogy just needs rethinking.

  7. Teaching math and science is hard, though, and it is compounded by the research demands placed on professors at large research universities. Of course, one would want to improve the quality of the teaching, but improving textbooks would help too. The necessity of working through exercises basically mandates a textbook of some sort, and interactive solutions guides or more engaging interactive problem sets could be incredible. If you can make textbooks better… and this might… wouldn’t that be good? I don’t really get the amount of pushback this seems to get, other than the fact that ascendant phenomena (i.e. Apple products) seem to get pushback simply on principle. A large company wants to make stuff for education better and/or cheaper (sure and make some money)?!?!? How dare they! If Apple can break the textbook publishers like they did the music industry, that would be pretty awesome.

  8. I’m with Hill here but I would take it even further:

    Why all the push-back? Even if Apple is the next Satan of Computing, that should not be enough to invalidate the type of thing they are trying to do here.

    Education is the single most important thing to get to people (feeding them just to stay alive isn’t quite enough). The current teaching model is almost fully based on physical interaction; not only with text books but also with teachers. This model is problematic for at least three potential student populations. People living far from schools, people (like me) having a day job and for whom it is difficult to keep on learning (because it is difficult to get to school) and young people disliking schools to sit still and behave in.

    Anything that shifts this model and lowers the entry threshold should spark creativity to address those issues instead of sparking a take-down of an initiative like this. I don’t think making tablets mandatory is solving anything and I couldn’t care less about what Apple wants to get as a commercial gain, but the cost of education is dominated by the need for students to get to physical schools and work with physical assets so anything that may help dealing with that entry cost should imho be received with interest rather than with dismay.

    Maybe this quote from Hume is also applicable to novelties proposed in the education field itself:

  9. Hill, I teach in the humanities and still use a textbook. There are numerous textbooks within the humanities which can be used in both lower-level and upper-level courses. Sure, there are a number of courses which go the ‘primary sources only’ route, but that’s not the entirety of the humanities discipline. It seems that you have a misunderstanding of instruction in the humanities. I’ve had textbooks (either as a student or instructor) in the following humanities courses: Intro to Philosophy, Ethics, Social Ethics, American History, World Cultures, World Religions, Religions of the West, Religions of the East, Philosophy of Religion, Contemporary British Theology — need I go on? Oftentimes, I have found that instructors choose not to use textbooks because, as you suggested, the textbooks are limited or poor. Adding multimedia doesn’t make the textbook any better; all it does is give a shitty textbook pretty images. This is why I first questioned your use of ‘humanities bias’ because, at least in my experience, the sciences are not the entirety of the university nor even the entirety of the university which uses textbooks. You really sound like the sciences are somehow special parts of the university and instructors don’t face the same demands and problems because they don’t teach math or chemistry. Reality check: all faculty have to deal with balancing research and teaching while administrators are demanding more and more of each. What you’re asking for is an electronic tutor which can tell students not only that they got a question wrong (because they’re too lazy to look at the solutions at the back of the book?) but where — something that what Apple is offering does not do. Perhaps using quizzes in an environment such as BlackBoard (but somehow without the primary faculty’s involvement) is what you’re looking for?

    Also, since when did Apple break the music industry? Was I asleep and the RIAA dissolved into the shadows? All that Apple has done was insert itself into the music industry complex so that it got a cut of the profits. Oh, and now unknown artists can put their music in iTunes to get popular enough to be picked up by a record label. Whoa! Earth shattering! I would think bands that have gone indie or released indie (Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, etc) are more revolutionary than the iTunes phenomenon which I do not (and cannot!) access. Will you next say that Apple revolutionised the code development industry with iPhone apps? Perhaps their next plan is to revolutionise the toilet industry with their upcoming iShit line of interactive johns. Nobody will shit or piss the same way again!

    Regarding the interactive features, I have friends who are students in courses which Apple’s innovation is targeted. In fact, one of her courses in Nursing has an interactive book available on the Nook Colour. She hates it despite its cool, interactive features and returned it for the boring textbook. I (and perhaps others as well) contend that adding spiffy graphics to a shitty textbook does not make textbooks better — unless all we’re using the textbooks for are the graphics (and then, why not just have an app or website with the graphics minus the shitty textbook features?).

    Perhaps the bigger issue is that Apple’s ‘revolutionary’ changes feed into the idea that everyone needs to have a university degree and, subsequently, drive students who pass secondary schools because teachers do not want to be fired for ‘poor performance’ towards universities where they are grossly unqualified to perform but they are treated in much the same fashion because of the almighty teaching evaluation. Should everyone attend university regardless of occupational goals? Apple’s iBooks line seems to suggest that yes — and now it’s even going to be more ‘accessible’ than before! I, for one, think the academic threshold needs to be raised rather than lowered.

    Full disclosure: I’m a wage slave at a large for-profit university whose student body is, by and large, not suited for even the basic community college level of coursework which I teach (half of my current students failed to identify Descartes as being a philosopher in a multiple choice, open book test after I have discussed him and his works in class for three weeks).

  10. I should have been clearer: in all of the courses you’ve listed, the primary part of the textbook is the words. Improving the graphics of those textbooks clearly doesn’t mean much because the graphics can’t possibly be very important. These are primarily linguistic, verbal disciplines. I really don’t think I’m making a controversial point here. Graphics are almost always going to be disproportionately more useful to science, mathematics and engineering, and in many cases, interactive, animated diagrams would be superior in every sense to static ones. Again… is this either hard to understand or controversial? Just as the sciences have been pushed forward by advances in technology the visualization of data, so might the teaching of science be pushed forward.

    You disclosed the honestly unfortunate circumstances which shape your views (and I mean that with the utmost solidarity), but your comments are inflected with a sort of resentment one sometimes finds towards the sciences in a university setting. All I’m saying is that high tech textbooks are more likely to be helpful in a science class. There is (what I view to be) a disproportionate level of rage in the blogosphere about this new technology that I have a hard time accounting for. If what you teach is primarily about words, yes, we’ve basically mastered that technology, although making books cheaper and more convenient is good. The arguments that it will be worthless for new textbooks are hollow ones, however something that is apparent to any science teacher.

    As to all of your points about the world being a bad place and Apple actively working to make it worse: I cede them.

  11. I would also make the bold claim that the only reason to use a textbook (over primary sources) in courses like Intro to Philosophy, World Religions, etc. is for reasons of cost. Once you’ve got a tablet with free access to basically everything ever written in the public domain and on demand access to electronic journals, that landscape changes.

  12. Clearly, Hill, you are the expert of humanities that those of us here who teach in the humanities are not. All we talk about are words! No ideas or concepts. Maps, artwork, architecture, music, timelines, and other graphic representations are completely optional. That’s in comparison to the great non-communicative transference of knowledge which occurs in science departments that use shitty textbooks so mired by text. Clearly, it is the humanities scholar who is mired in her biases and ressentiment when she suggests that making textbooks interactive won’t make them less shitty. Clearly, the sciences scholar has risen above her biases and reached the almighty objectivity and can weigh the case of Apple’s revolutionary new iTextBooks offering for the entire university in ways that mere scholars of words cannot.

    To be honest, you seem deeply naive about the humanities use of textbooks and graphics. I don’t know about other disciplines, but the textbooks — just like the lectures — uses words (gasp!) to convey concepts rather than just words. I use a lot of different multimedia in my courses (maps, graphs, art, video, music, etc) which help students understand the information better (e.g. a map of the spread of Islam in the 10th century, photos of artwork which are being described in the book, etc). I even make some of these graphics myself and animate them (e.g. the waxing and waning of an empire over time). These often help explain the historical phenomena of religions much easier than plain text. However, adding animated images to a textbook is not ‘revolutionary’ enough. And that is why (I think) there is such a ‘disproportionate level of rage’: Apple isn’t providing something revolutionary or new. They’re just marketing it that way.

    Lastly, for introductory courses to cover the primary sources of just one religion in a semester is difficult. When dealing with three, five, ten, or more, it’s impossible. A textbook is able to highlight the concepts which are central to a religion and provide some key passages in a single book. Much easier and convenient than having students purchase carry a translated volume of the Mahabharata for a single passage. Then again, since one of the commonly used translations was made less than 100 years ago, it’s not in the public domain (yet). Same goes with the NRSV Bible. Can we at least agree to the following: your understanding of how humanities courses work is about as good as my understanding of how sciences courses work (full disclosure: I took the first-year course sequences — thirty semester hours in total — for science majors in Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Mathematics as electives). Can we stop pretending to speak on high about other disciplines? A science class may use the textbook quite differently but it doesn’t speak for the university as a whole any better than a humanities class. Apple’s ‘offering’ is supposed to revolutionise education across the disciplines and across the levels of education. Adam has argued that it really doesn’t. That goes back to my original question to you: ‘can you explain why something whose benefits appear to be only for one portion of a modern university (i.e. natural science departments) be considered ‘revolutionary’ for the entirety of the university?’ If the issue which is getting to you is that words in textbooks are secondary to education in science classes, perhaps there should be a long hard think about whether they should be using books at all.

  13. Your character assassination doesn’t change the fact that electronic textbooks might be good and that there is a pathological amount of hand-wringing going on about them. The transition from traditional textbook to electronic text seems to be a huge step towards not using textbooks at all in science. That’s precisely the point I’m trying to make. Textbooks aren’t a great vehicle for teaching science, but as with the humanities courses you mention, it’s just not practical to do it without them short of completely changing the curriculum. I know lots of people that are ready and willing at their institution to do just that, but it is difficult to find the administrative will for it.

    You seem to be taking special issue with the use of the word revolutionary. This is straight out of ad copy from the company marketing the product. What else do you expect? Oxy-Clean is also supposedly revolutionary, but having used the product, I can tell you it isn’t. It would be more constructive to actually examine the reality of the possibilities offered by a really well done electronic textbook, and currently Apple is the only company with the momentum to pull this off. No real person is claiming these textbooks will be revolutionary, and even if they were, I’m not. I do, however, think that going hard about how they won’t be any better at all is pretty stupid. They might suck. And? Save the 3,000 word blog posts until someone in the wild has actually laid hands on them and that question is settled.

  14. For the sake of parsing the argument we are having, is there a specific context where these are referred to as revolutionary? I have no doubt the word is used in a promotional video somewhere, but I don’t recall it specifically.

  15. Having done some Cmd+F action on this thread (I’m using a Mac!), you seem to take issue with the various ways in which Apple is thought, by the general public, I suppose, to have revolutionized various things. Smart phones, tablets, mp3 players, personal computers, application development, maybe even textbooks! The textbook part remains to be seen, but it seems trivially true to me that Apple has revolutionized the other product categories, either in themselves or in the public’s adoption of them.

  16. I never said that electronic ‘textbooks’ have no possibility of being good. In fact, my very first question explicitly states ‘something whose benefits appear to be only for one portion of a modern university’ — a phrase which it appears you have either missed or ignored. What I said was that such benefits are, on the whole, limited to certain disciplines and therefore not something that will reinvent the way in which education is practised across the board. That’s it. I’m sure that consolidating online multimedia content and course textbook into a single, shiny package will be nice, but it’s nothing new except for the packaging and increased convenience factor (for consumers). An electronic textbook will still be a textbook. If they’re able to make updates free-of-charge permanently and keep book cost down (since there’s no printing), it will change the way textbooks are consumed. That still won’t address how to change textbooks to make them less shitty (which overlaps considerably with textbooks being textbook-y).

    A huge step towards not using textbooks in classes is to not use textbooks. In my undergrad (which was at a uni by no means amazing or innovative), I took sciences courses without textbooks (chemistry and physics being two). I knew of other instructors there in the sciences (geology, geography) which also did not use textbooks for some lower-level courses. The lectures (and lecture notes made available on BlackBoard) was more than enough to learn the material. In my calculus classes, the book was used as a bank of practise questions for homework and never was reading work assigned for it. It seems that, just there in my own experience at a satellite campus of a state university, getting rid of shitty textbooks was quite possible.

    Lastly, I take use with the concept that Apple’s message is ‘revolutionary’ because it isn’t. It’s marketing. And that’s what Apple is good at. Yes, they have ‘revolutionised’ the way people consume Apple products, but that’s the end of it. They haven’t changed the smartphone industry (which existed before the iPhone in much the same fashion though with less advertising), the tablets in the 2000s* for similar reasons, mp3 players (again, existed before the iPod), PCs (I’ll allow USB, FireWire, and increased individual consumption), or application development (iOS SDK?). Apple is excellent at marketing, and that is why they’re popular today.

    * NB: Apple was once quite innovative when it brought forth the Newton tablet decades ago despite its utter failure. That is something I will give to Apple.

  17. I realize this is off topic, but it’s symptomatic of your assessments, generally, of anything involving Apple. You seriously think Apple hasn’t changed the smartphone industry? Or the mp3 player industry? Or the tablet industry? The number of people that own tablets doubled *over the holidays alone*. Apple had nothing to do with this other than their brilliant commercials, right? All of those tablets before the iPad were just suffering from poor ad campaigns?

    The “Apple is successful not because they make good products but because they market them well” argument is so absurd that I don’t know how to respond to it. You obviously have some issue with the company that isn’t going to be resolved by facts.

  18. I seriously don’t know what world you live in where the claim “They [Apple] haven’t changed the smartphone industry” would seem defensible. The consensus was that the iPhone would fail when it came out! Likewise with the iPad.

  19. If you wish to equate ‘selling products’ with ‘seriously changing the industry in question’, then I cede your point. Yes, Apple is selling a shitload of products, but that is completely separate with changing an industry. Apple’s innovation is in taking existing ideas, putting a nice package on it, then a lot of marketing genius. MP3 players were starting to become popular when the iPod came out. What was the difference? The Apple-controlled iTunes store which tacked on DRM to the AAC codec. They made a huge, clunky interface to that storefront which also had a basic file managing system that could seamless transfer the files from their proprietary store to their proprietary device. There was software already out there which did the same thing (though devs had to reverse engineer the iPod database file) minus the store. Then, they developed a candybar smartphone. Added a store to install apps. Rinse and repeat. Oh, they also released an SDK so that developers could make apps and sell them in Apple’s proprietary store. Now, they’re not even developing a device (since the iPad already exists and, before it, the Newton) but they’re adding a new store and new app for content producers. Rinse and repeat. It’s been a winning strategy for them so far, so why change it? Their marketing and branding creates the desire for their products. Yes, other companies which actually develop the new ideas into products do tend to suffer from really shitty marketing to people (look at RIM and BlackBerry or even Apple in the 1990s with its iMacs!).

    What effects have they had on the music industry? Early release on iTunes? iTunes-only releases? Removed the middleman of record labels which pay for recording studios and marketing? What effects have they had on the smartphone industry? Phone apps? A virtual assistant which is a sassier and better-connected version of Bob or the Paper Clip? Multi-touch screens? Virtual keyboard? And the iPad?! In seven years, it shaves off just over an inch and adds accelerometers, a multi-touch display, and 3G to the HP TC1100 from 2003! I’m not sure who said the iPhone or iPad would fail when it was released — Apple is (now) great at polishing a product and selling it like crazy. However, they no longer try to create new and innovative products which actually change the industry (in much the same way Microsoft has been largely unwilling to be innovative with Windows before a competitor does something).

    Again — I never said that Apple makes shitty products (you seem to read into what I say a whole lot). Their products are quite well made, but there’s little to nothing new about the products. The technology used in the products are often even behind the times in terms of raw processing capabilities (single-core vs dual core, under 1Ghz, under 512Mb RAM)

  20. You have completely overlooked the software in every case, which, especially for phones and tablets, is by far the most important aspect. There competitors are a generation behind their software, in spite of having the opportunity to essentially copy it, which is part of the reason their devices with lower specs have user experiences that are on par or exceed their competitors. You may personally disagree with this, but you would seem to be in the minority. This doesn’t even include the software development ecosystem they’ve developed in which it’s now possible for one or two people to make millions of dollars if they can develop a popular app. General developer preference for the Apple mobile app ecosystem is fairly well documented anecdotally as well as in the economic prospects of developing there versus another space. This will likely add significant momentum to potential sea changes in textbooks (if the format catches on). I should add that the interconnectedness of the iPad, iPhone, iPod is itself an innovation, albeit one some may disagree with philosophically. It has at the very least resulted in a critical mass of devices that all run the same software that had no previously existed.

    While this seems to be straying even further off topic, your failure to appreciate these dimensions seems related to your generally dim assessment of the prospects for an electronic textbook initiative led by Apple.

  21. An electronic textbook will still be a textbook. If they’re able to make updates free-of-charge permanently and keep book cost down (since there’s no printing), it will change the way textbooks are consumed.

    And I don’t see any reason why electronic textbooks would lead to either of these things; why would textbook companies cut off their revenue stream by providing free updates, and why would they be any less likely to charge ridiculous prices for electronic textbooks than paper textbooks?

    More generally, this recent Apple e-textbook push seems entirely of a piece with other recent collaborations between tech companies and educational administrators (the UC online campus, Bill Gates’s pushes for charter schools), which haven’t had good consequences either for educators or education, so it’s hardly surprising that a lot of academics are responding with something between skepticism and hostility.

  22. I think the most interesting possibility is that with the new authoring software, which Apple provides for free, anyone can make a textbook. So while publishers might not want to cut off their revenue stream by offering free updates, all of the current barriers to entry in the textbook publishing market may soon disappear, resulting in pressure for higher quality books at lower prices. Plenty of people that frequent this blog would be capable of authoring textbooks on a range of subjects, and have the requisite credentials to do so. What if you could publish it on iTunes and turn it in to a revenue stream? At the intro class level, anything one might want to know is already on Wikipedia, so there’s really no justification for the prices that major publishers charge for a book full of information that is reproduced all over the internet.

    I read in an article that for the same content, the production cost of an electronic textbook is something like 20% of that of a physical textbook.

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