This month’s debut of Apple’s digital textbook venture met with mixed reactions. Who’s right?

The Good: Apple helps cut out the middleman.

Textbook IpadScientists have already begun publishing digital textbooks themselves.

A year ago, electronic textbook publishers turned down David Johnston’s big idea: the first interactive marine science textbook….”When we approached them, they essentially told us we were too small,” Johnston said. Frustrated by the experience, Johnston set out to create open source software to publish the book himself…

The first interactive marine science textbook for the iPad is called Cachalot (French for “sperm whale”). It’s a free, app-based book that covers the latest science of marine megafauna like whales, dolphins and seals with expert-contributed text, images and open-access studies. Through a digital publication system called FLOW, the book also offers students note-taking tools, Twitter integration, Wolfram|Alpha search and even National Geographic “critter cam” videos.

[Duke students built this open-source predecessor to iBook Author for $5000.]

Amazon has already pulled the rug out from under publishing middlemen.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide….

“Everyone’s afraid of Amazon,” said Richard Curtis, a longtime agent who is also an e-book publisher. “If you’re a bookstore, Amazon has been in competition with you for some time. If you’re a publisher, one day you wake up and Amazon is competing with you too. And if you’re an agent, Amazon may be stealing your lunch because it is offering authors the opportunity to publish directly and cut you out….

Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives….pointed out, though, that the landscape was in some ways changing for the first time since Gutenberg invented the modern book nearly 600 years ago. “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

Wired’s Epicenter blog sees iBook Author as a wedge into Amazon’s territory.

Up until now, iTunes U has basically been a special education podcast section in iTunes, mostly geared towards higher ed. It’s a mic feed or camera over the shoulder in a lecture hall — which really only covers the most basic way information is conveyed in a proper classroom.

Now, iTunes U — still free — has become something much closer to a full-fledged learning management app for iOS. Teachers can post materials from syllabi to assignments, blog entries and updates, and everything else they need in order to communicate with students — on top of incorporating iBooks 2 and iTunes U audio/video content.

It’s not entirely clear to me that the new and improved iTunes U can become a wholesale replacement to current widely-used learning management systems like the much-reviled Blackboard. I don’t know whether it meets some of the specialized security requirements for handling assignment submissions, grading, and so forth. And again, deploying it as an iOS app rather than a web-based service limits its use to Apple’s proprietary platform….

Amazon has far too much of a lead on Apple in distributing electronic versions of trade press and self-published books for iBooks to tackle them directly. Make that the metric and Apple can only lose. Shift the focus to the education market — which by revenue actually far outstrips trade books — and Apple now can compete with startups like Inkling, Kno and Chegg on much more favorable terms.

Meanwhile, iBooks Author is the trojan horse. There really aren’t many easy-to-use e-book authoring apps, even for plain-text books for Kindle or Nook. And none of the easy-to-use applications have been free.

The Bad: Apple hasn’t solved the social problem.

Apple’s view of interactivity is still behind that of rivals like Facebook.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona College professor and director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association, was troubled by the limited view of interactivity modeled in the new iBooks — interaction between a student and a screen, not students with one another — as well as the limitation of these new textbooks to only Apple’s platform and format.

Wired’s Geekdad asks whether iBook Author will add to the signal or the noise,

Education has enough content. There is more generic content out there for any individual subject than is possible to know. There are digitally proficient teachers who customize and repackage that content and those tools in ways that are appropriate for the students in their classes — from kindergartens and high schools into colleges and universities. Anyone in education knows there is a fast-growing community of teachers online doing their best to share the best tools, the best content and the best news ideas that they can. But what educators and parents alike are asking is, “Where do I find the best-quality content?”….

I understand that Apple has rarely based its business on doing the thinking for you. The company provides tools and is happy to allow the user to make the most of them. However, everything about the web and the internet over the coming years is screaming curation. The next step forward is finding better ways to discover content: the most useful apps, the most worthwhile online browsing experience in terms of content relevant to your question.

I am not sure if Apple has a team working on curation. But for Apple to continue to ignore the importance of helping parents and educators sort through and make sense of the tens of thousands of apps in the education section of the iTunes App Store is a missed opportunity to lead another revolution.

Study shows iPads help middleschoolers…

In a partnership with Apple, textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt performed a pilot study using an iPad text for Algebra 1 courses, and found that 20 percent more students (78 percent compared to 59 percent) scored ‘Proficient’ or ‘Advanced’ in subject comprehension when using tablets rather than paper textbook counterparts.

…or does it?

Computers were supposed to be an educationally revolutionary technology, but actual research on computer-aided learning paints a surprisingly complicated picture (.pdf). Some studies found a link between using computers and improved school performance; others found no connection. What seemed to matter most was the environment in which computers were used.

In perhaps the most thorough review ever conducted of technology and academic performance, education policy expert and McGraw-Hill research director Harold Wenglinsky found that socioeconomic status — and all the real-world factors that signifies, from parental involvement to teacher quality to domestic stress — mediate technology’s effects. Given equal access to computers, affluent students benefited more than poor students, a digital divide of effect rather than access.

The experience of the One Laptop Per Child program in Birmingham, Alabama is an important cautionary tale: In an ambitious and radical move to improve education through technology, laptops were distributed to more than 15,000 students and teachers, but with little attention paid to how they were used. Lacking a defined plan and trained teachers, many students barely use the machines.

The Ugly: Apple’s workers catch fire

Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Plus, Chinese Readers respond on the ‘iEconomy’

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