Studying up on Apple’s new education apps

Jan 20, 2012
Education

Thursday’s big Apple event in New York was all about education. Phil Schiller, senior VP of marketing, took center stage. He unveiled a trio of products that, combined, create an educational ecosystem that will surely lead to more educational iPad pilot programs, and likely to many mainstream unsubsidized classrooms. You can watch the keynote address […]

Thursday’s big Apple event in New York was all about education. Phil Schiller, senior VP of marketing, took center stage. He unveiled a trio of products that, combined, create an educational ecosystem that will surely lead to more educational iPad pilot programs, and likely to many mainstream unsubsidized classrooms. You can watch the keynote address here.

While the content is not yet abundant, the architecture put in place has the potential to overtake any would-be competitors in this sector and place Apple as the player in educational tech.

iBooks 2 (Free)

Apple updated their book-reader app, iBooks, to include an interface suited to intense multimedia, and launched an iBookstore section dedicated to textbooks. At present only a small assortment of high-school textbooks from McGraw Hill and Pearson for grades 9-12 are available, but commitments from major publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will fill out the content soon. The current selections are largely STEM subjects: biology, chemistry, algebra, physics, and so on. The app looks the same, but its ability to handle the specially designed textbooks is fluid, seamless and inviting. At present, all textbooks comply with US CORE standards.

The books themselves make me (almost) wish I were back in high school. These texts have interactive graphics, videos, integrated note taking, searching, even highlighting to make the experience both very 21st century and organic. The review question section provides instant feedback and student’s notes and glossary terms are turned into index-card study aids. I love how the textbook works in different orientations: in landscape the layout includes the graphics in the text; in portrait the graphics are placed on the side to focus attention on the reading.

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Textbooks are currently priced at $14.99, far less than traditional hardcover texts. While it’s reasonable to assume university titles will come with heftier price tags, they should still be dramatically lower than campus bookstore offerings, which if Apple has their way, will soon become college sticker and sweatshirt outlets. Schools can offer students redemption codes to get the texts  at no cost to their families, or use the one-tap checkout. The ability to update the textbooks via iTunes is particularly compelling especially for subjects like political science, physics, history and medicine, which are constantly evolving.

iBooks Author (Mac App Store only: Free)

A most impressive app, touted as the GarageBand for eBooks, iBooks Author is a Mac app, available now on the Mac App Store for free. It allows educators (or anyone really) to self-publish. The software looks and feels like all of Apple’s iWork titles  – intuitive and logical. Anyone familiar with Pages should find the interface comfortable, and iBooks Author incorporates some pretty exciting and advanced features on top of templates and text editing.

The app offers simple ways for non-techies to integrate existing text documents, images and multimedia widgets into the cover and body using mostly drag-and-drop. The editor is completely WYSIWYG although some JAVA or HTML5 knowledge helps create the most innovative and interactive features. Keynote presentations are well integrated as well. Particularly appealing is how Apple incorporates accessibility features for the disabled like VoiceOver.

The end-results (in the right hands) look as authentic as any of the textbooks lining brick-and-mortar store shelves, but offer much more, are weightless, and can be published to iBooks directly. In fact, all textbooks for the iBookstore must use it and while PDF and TXT output is an option, all the advanced features work exclusively with iBooks 2. This new ecosystem is complete, but closed.

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iTunes U (Free)

The least touted development from yesterday’s keynote address may be the most intriguing. Apple introduced a dedicated iTunes U app. The idea isn’t new, there has been a section in iTunes for iTunes U for years and podcast lectures predate the iPhone. But this is different – free courses from schools as varied as Open University, UC Berkley and MIT are offered and the courses include everything from syllabus to lectures to supplemental materials. Everything is closely integrated with iBooks for book-to-lecture switching simplicity.

The catalog, far from filled, offers courses aimed at college but even K-12 classes are supported. The courses line the virtual shelves in the iTunes U app as the textbooks do in iBooks, but have a tabbed binder-like interface. They link to the iBookstore (for educational texts) and the App Store (for educational apps), and are in other ways monetized for Apple, but instructors can also use iBooks Author to create free course supplements. iTunes U uses iCloud synching for cross-device studying.

While financial motives are obviously a big part of this move, it’s exciting to see education, and universal access to it, in the spotlight. Digital learning is the inevitable path to the future, and Apple has leaped out ahead of the pack with this triumvirate of apps. Hopefully Cupertino’s edu-elite create as much competition and buzz around this sector as they have in the realms of music, games, digital books and apps.

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Lisa Caplan

Lisa Caplan writes app lists and guides as well as reviewing iOS apps and games on various tech sites, most recently on her fledgling iPhone and iPad giveaway blog, AppTudes. She is thrilled to be joining the stellar reviewing team at Appolicious. Located in a balmy Montreal suburb, Lisa has an advanced degree in Creative Writing, and has had an Apple computer by her side since 1979! She is a talentless art nut, bibliophile and accessory junkie. Lisa looks forward to sharing her gaming addiction and love for all tech that promotes culture, communication, social awareness and education at every level.

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