Why iBooks Author is Interesting to Me

Today Apple announced a number of new initiatives relating to textbooks, including a new version of their iOS app iBooks, a new authoring tool to create iBooks, and a new iOS app for iTunes U. None of these announcements was an utter surprise, as rumors had been swirling for several weeks before announcements were even delivered to the press for the event. And while I think the new initiative to sell textbooks for iBooks is important, I want to focus on the authoring tool and its implications for higher ed in this post.

This semester I am teaching an upper-level course in my main area of specialty, plant physiology. Since I began teaching the class 10 years ago, and even when I took the class as an undergrad, I have used the standard-bearer text, Plant Physiology by Taiz and Zeiger. It is an excellent book with an encyclopedic coverage of the topic — it’s great. In fact, it is too great, going into detail at a level more appropriate for advanced courses. I have tended to assign readings from the text as a supplement and a reference for the students, and in almost no topic do we exhaust the coverage of the book. I provide the students with an outline for each topic so they know which details I want them to focus their attention on. For some time, I have felt like they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of the book using it in this way, but they are much more comfortable having an “official” textbook than going without (I’ve tried that experiment). The only alternative seemed to be to write my own, but the fact that the textbook in a field is too good did not seem like strong motivation to write something else. I have no interest in writing a real textbook and trying to get it published, as it seems to me like a monumental task, and I’d frankly rather be in the lab.

But if there were a way to “publish” a book only targeting my class, by converting those outlines I’ve made into short chapters on each topic, well… Why not? I have no intentions of any other students wanting or needing my vastly inferior collection of topic overviews, but it would be fine if they wanted them. The iBooks Author app seems like just the kind of tool to create such a book — I can take words I already have lying around (or write new ones), package them up, and push a button. I can export a PDF for students without iOS devices. I can publish them to the web for still others to find them. I can use something like pandoc to shape them into a file in ePub format.

And all this makes me wonder, how many other faculty members out there are like me, having a collection of notes and points of emphasis for a topic that they know something about, but had no interest in producing a textbook through a traditional publisher? Or perhaps they wrote their own “book” and published it through the campus copy shop? I think having an authoring tool and distribution system all wrapped up together has tremendous potential for these situations. Having the freedom and flexibility to put together a little book to accompany a specialty course is an attractive idea to me, one that I plan to experiment with.

If I end up doing the work to turn those outlines into book chapters and distribute them to my class, I will likely do so without cost to the students (despite the objections of my wife!). I have felt for a long time that textbooks are far too expensive, especially those that are used only as a secondary reference like I described above. I would love to save my students the cost of the textbook yet still provide them with something that serves as a reference for them as they study. I haven’t even begun investigating the new iTunes U app as a distribution means, but I understand it could work in conjunction with iBooks to provide all manner of resources to our students. Makes me wonder which will be more disrupted, textbook publishers or LMS vendors?

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