A Brief History of Textbooks, or, Why Apple's 'New Textbook Experience' Is Actually Revolutionary

The tech giant might have just introduced a new educational paradigm.


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It's official: Apple has doubled down on education. In today's announcement of its new iBooks 2 platform, the company also introduced iBooks Textbooks, iPad-based textbooks that it's been developing, so far, in conjunction with textbook giants Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The collection of primers -- which Apple is variously referring to as a "new textbook experience" and "the next chapter in learning" -- leverages the interactive capabilities of the tablet and applies them to educational content. 

This is big news because it's a big deal. In entering the textbook market, Apple is also transforming it.

Textbooks have remained, depending on your perspective, either amazingly consistent or amazingly stagnant over the thousands of years they've been around. Whether codexes or scrolls, whether scrawled on papyrus or printed on paper, their purpose has remained the same: to contain and systematize the educational experience, making knowledge both portable and economical. Textbooks have been optimized to render the vagaries of circumstance irrelevant. And they've been that way from the start. As James Bowen notes in A History of Western Education,

Both Donatus' grammar, composed in the fourth century A.D., and Alexander's of 1199 were designed for the minimum classroom, that is, one consisting of the barest elements: a master reading or expounding to pupils seated on forms, with no further necessary equipment such as a blackboard or writing equipment -- desks, pens, ink, and paper."

The minimum classroom. Yes. 

In an age when, for many students, classrooms are all too minimum, iPads-as-textbooks will ostensibly do what books-as-textbooks have always done: to serve as artifacts of received wisdom that operate, and educate, regardless of physical circumstances. 

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But! That bit of ordinariness is exactly what makes Apple's education play so transformative. The defining element of textbooks, up to now, has been their commodity status: Being standardized, they're also impersonal. They're transient. They're given to you at the beginning of the school year; you give them back at the end. (Or, worse: You buy them at the beginning of the school year; you sell them back at the end.) Textbooks are not, in any meaningful sense, yours. 

In all that, they enforce the notion of the student as a cog and of learning as a machine, and effectively frame education as, first and foremost, an act of consumption rather than exploration. Memorize something -- check. Take the test to prove you've learned that something -- check. Check and check and check.

Inspiring, no? But it's an approach that's been as necessary as it's been frustrating: In an analog environment, wisdom is contingent on memorized information. You have to know things before you can understand things. (Or, as Jay Rosen might put it, "You've gotta grok it before you can rock it.") 

In a webified world, though, that paradigm is transforming, and quickly. The Internet, expansive and permissive, is replacing the textbook as the collective conduit of received wisdom. Online, our search boxes are our synapses. And as the "minimum classroom" evolves from a matter of extraction to one of connection, education becomes more about figuring out how to re-calibrate learning when learning itself no longer means what it used to. 

Into all that...enter Apple. The company isn't, at all, transforming educational norms; what it is doing, though, is what it's best at: identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them. iPadded textbooks are still textbooks, but they're personalized textbooks. They take advantage of the emotional connection people, and especially young people, feel to their devices. They encourage, rather than frown on, active note-taking. They demand, rather than curtail, exploration. They create a kind of kaleidoscopic experience: video, text, audio, all whirring and whirling into each other in a self-guided tour of history or chemistry or biology. They invite students to create learning environments that, though standardized on one level, are, on another, uniquely theirs. And that changes everything. 

At least if enough students can afford future, presumably cheaper models of the tablet.

Images: Reuters, Apple.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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