Teacher’s Got a Brand New Bag

Whether it’s iPads replacing textbooks or college courses being offered free around the world, education is moving into some uncharted territory.

Are Apple's digital textbooks going to change the industry?
Are Apple's digital textbooks going to change the industry? Feedloader (Clickability)

Last week Steve Jobs came back to life.  Or at least his aura did.  At an “education event” in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Apple proclaimed that the time has come to “reinvent the textbook” and who better to do it than Apple.  The mythic leader himself had put a Jobsian spin on the matter during one of his interviews with writer Walter Issacson for the best-selling biography, Steve Jobs. Textbook publishing, Jobs pronounced, was “an $8 billion industry ripe for digital destruction.”

Let the sacking begin.

In a time when your cell phone can tell you the weather forecast and your car can give you directions, textbooks can feel so, well, unresponsive. They’re not all that different from what they were like when people were riding horses to work, except they cost a whole lot more. They’re still are a pain to keep current, still get dog-earred, still can make you feel like you’re lugging around bricks.

Enter the iPad. Apple’s solution, naturally, is to replace textbooks with sleek, light, nimble iPads and its big announcement last week was that it’s rolling out a new version of its electronic bookstore called iBooks 2, and filling it with titles of its new partners, some of the biggest textbook publishers in the business. The e-books will cost $14.99 each, a pittance in this business, and be a breeze to update. Plus, they’ll be interactive, with touchscreen diagrams, audio and video. And you’ll be able to do word searches.

Apple even has research to back up its contention that the iPad blows away the conventional textbook as a teaching tool. A study done in a California middle school last year found that almost 20 percent more students (78 percent versus 59 percent) scored ”Proficient” or “Advanced” in Algebra I courses when using an iPad.

So it’s all good, right?

Well, there is the matter of how you ensure that every kid has an iPad. Even if Apple offers a discount below the $500 price tag, most public schools aren’t exactly flush with cash these days. And not everyone has been dazzled by Apple’s innovation. Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a program that helps intergrate technology into the classroom, says that for all the bells and whistles, what iBooks brings to education is more tweak than reinvention. It still treats students as consumers, whereas technology at its best, says Martinez, encourages them to be creators.

Blogger Steve McCabe, writing in “Tidbits,” which covers Apple products, goes even farther. He hopes that in future iterations, Apple’s textbook software will allow more personalized learning where the content will be able to interact with the student–Siri turns tutor–instead of just the other way around. For now, McCabe argues, Apple is offering students an experience not all that different from a CD-ROM in the 1990s.

Steve Jobs is rolling over.

The new college try

Even more dramatic changes in education are bubbling up at the college level.  Last month MIT announced the launch this spring of a new initiative called MITx, which will allow people around the world to take MIT courses. For free.

Getting an MIT education at no charge seems like one sweet deal, although it’s not quite that simple. The course selection will be fairly limited, at least initially, and a MITx student won’t be able to earn a degree, but simply a “certificate of completion.” It’s also possible that there will be an “affordable” charge for a certificate.  But unlike other online courses the university offers, the MITx platform will give students access to real online labs–not just simulations–and student-to-student discussions. It’s open source software and MIT expects other universities and high schools around the country will eventually end up using it.

That will only swell the latest wave of free online learning, pioneered by websites such as Academic Earth, which began streaming videos of lectures by professors at the country’s top universities almost four years ago and now has Bill Gates among its biggest fans, and Khan Academy, the brainchild of MIT graduate Salman Khan, who began making his conversational video tutorials in 2005 and now has more than 100,000 people around the world viewing his lessons every day. (See Khan’s recent interview with Forbes to see where he thinks all this is headed.)  There’s Codeacademy,  which teaches coding newbies how to build apps.

And now add a new player called Udacity, which has its own curious history. Last fall Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who’s also been leading the development of Google’s driverless car, sent out an email to a professional network saying that he would offer his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course–the same one he taught at the university–online without charge. Within days 10,000 people had signed up; eventually 160,000 would, including an unusually large contingent of Lithuanians and several Afghans who skirted through war zones to get to Internet connections. When the course ended in December, 248 people had earned perfect scores; none of them was an official Stanford student.

Things apparently got a little tense when Thrun let Stanford administrators know about his plan to offer his class for free. So it’s no surprise that he decided to leave the university and go out on his own. He describes using technology to make free, high-quality education available worldwide as “like a drug.”

Next month Udacity will offer its first two courses, “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” Not for everyone, but available to anyone.

Video Bonus: Watch Sebastian Thrun’s talk at the recent Digital Life Design conference and hear how his decision to teach free courses felt like a choice out of  The Matrix.

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