As a kid, I was lucky to have a dad who was a top-notch book-cover maker, wrapping my school textbooks in brown paper bags that he transformed into precisely folded, sharp cornered, blank canvases.
But even Dad’s covers couldn’t fix everything: Some books showed their age with dog-eared pages, highlights, tears and leftover love notes. Plus, they weighed several pounds each, tugging down my JanSport backpack.
This week, I tested a one-stop solution to much of that which ails textbooks: Apple’s iBooks 2. This redesigned iPad app offers enhanced educational textbooks that are, for now, focused on high-school students and cost no more than $15 each. Apple’s smallest and least expensive iPad can store roughly eight to 10 textbooks, along with other content. (High schoolers have an average of four textbooks a year, according to Apple.) The iPad itself weighs just over one pound.
These electronic textbooks include interactive materials that seem like they should’ve been available long ago: multiple-choice questions that can be answered with taps on the screen, embedded videos, dynamic diagrams that change with touch gestures and flash cards for studying important terms in a book.
The big catch is you need an iPad to read these textbooks, and schools or parents may have trouble budgeting for these devices. The least expensive iPad costs $499. Apple argues the low cost of books will offset the cost of the device.
Currently about 1,000 of the iBooks 2 books, 11 of which are textbooks, have new enhancements such as video, dynamic diagrams and study flash cards. A pinch gesture will restore a zoomed-in image to its place in a book.
Also, some people have trouble reading long passages on the iPad’s backlit screen, or find it uncomfortable to hold. In the sun, its reflective surface makes reading nearly impossible.
Currently about 1,000 books, 11 of which are textbooks, have the new iBooks 2 features. These include titles from well-known publishers like Pearson Education, Dorling Kindersley and McGraw-Hill; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books are coming in time for the start of the next school year.
But the books also include published works from teachers, experts and regular people who used Apple’s new iBooks Author app to create a book. This is a free app for Macs for creating and publishing content. User-created books are approved by Apple and then made available in the iBooks store for free or for a price.
I downloaded several of the new iBooks textbooks onto my iPad, including “Biology,” “Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life,” “Chemistry” and “Life on Earth.” I also downloaded an older AP Biology title without enhancements: Zoomed-in images weren’t in focus, and the book lacked interactive materials.
Delightful animations and gestures abound in these enhanced e-books.
Tap on any image to see it larger and tap different parts of the image to see animations, like an electromagnetic spectrum diagram in a science textbook that showed frequency and wavelength as I tapped on images of infrared lamps and lasers. A two-finger pinch returns the image to its place in the book with a playful animation.
Highlighting works in several colors and readers just hold down a finger and start dragging that finger along text to highlight.
When these books are read with the iPad held in landscape (horizontally), visuals take up large portions of the screen. But when the iPad is in portrait mode, text takes center stage, with smaller representations of each image appearing in the margins. This option to focus on reading could be a real help for kids who are easily distracted. Some titles, however, may only be readable in landscape view.
Study cards, a digital version of the 3-by-5 index cards you used to spend hours making by hand, are a huge timesaver. Every term in a book’s glossary generates its own study card. The front shows the word, and a tap on its corner flips the card to show its definition.
Even highlighting is easier and looks better in iBooks 2: It works in several colors, and rather than turning on highlighting first, readers simply hold down a finger and start dragging that finger along text to highlight. Study cards also are created for every passage you highlight.
But I found a few bugs. The new iBooks 2 app crashed several times and an Algebra 1 book froze in mid-download. The download didn’t complete because my iPad was full, but a notice about this didn’t appear, even after rebooting, until several hours later.
Apple later reported that the file I was trying to download was corrupted, and replaced the file.
And there are other curious omissions. Some parts of these books, like blank lab charts and chapter review questions, didn’t offer a built-in place to enter answers.
For that, I had to create and add a digital note in the book (using the iPad’s on-screen keyboard) or do the unthinkable—use a pencil and paper.
An Apple official said all notes are text-based and there are no current plans for finger or stylus input.
In addition to iBooks, Apple revamped its free iTunes U app, which used to be limited to audio and video lectures for higher education.
Now, iTunes U is available for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and can include all sorts of course components like the new iBooks textbooks, outlines, Web links and apps. This content is free, except for in-app materials including things like textbooks or apps. I downloaded Duke University’s “Introductory Chemistry” in iTunes U and it contained 567 videos, books, documents, apps and Web links.
If anyone can move textbooks into a new realm with interactive, smart gestures, it’s Apple. But iBooks needs to work out a few kinks before it can be used as a full replacement for physical textbooks.