Friday, January 20, 2012

Apple's education initiative may not be kid friendly.

Apple announced today at their education event in New York a new initiative for creating and downloading interactive, multimedia textbooks at their iBookstore.  The best part of the announcement is a proposed cost of $14.99 or less for textbooks purchased through this service.  Apple also proposed to enhance the learning experience by integrating streaming videos, and multimedia applications within the textbooks.  Despite these apparent benefits, school boards and especially Apple's competitors, should seriously consider the costs associated with switching to an iPad education model.  This model puts a sophisticated computing device, the iPad, into every learning environment where your child may use a textbook.  Unfortunately, it also restricts students' use of the learning material to occasions where an iPad is available.  An additional consideration is that students using the iPad would be placed in a conflicting learning situation since the iPad was not created for reading, it was created for entertainment and is remarkably good at doing just that.  A careful consideration of the costs and benefits of the E-textbook learning experience suggests that a far simpler model than that proposed by Apple should be embraced, especially for elementary and high school students.

Benefits of electronic textbooks:

There are real benefits to using e-textbooks in the classroom for schools and for students.  Firstly, textbooks are expensive.  E-books reduce the expense of updating classroom materials, and eliminate the costs associated with damaged or lost books.  Of course, add to that the environmental affect of not printing all of these books on paper.  Apple's pricing of less than $15 per book, with unlimited free replacement is a BIG deal.  No longer would schools have to pay to replace lost, stolen or damaged books.
      Students would not have to lug around heavy knapsacks full of textbooks.  We all remember how backbreaking that can be.  They also would not have to remember which books they need on a particular day, for a particular class.  All of their textbook needs would be located on a single electronic tablet that weighs a few ounces and can store thousands of books.
     Additionally, students would have a world of reference materials at their fingertips.  E-books are not static like textbooks.  The readers include a dictionary, thesaurus and a web browser - student's could fill knowledge gaps instantly.  Also, students with slight visual impairments can easily increase the size of the text as needed.

Costs of electronic textbooks:

The electronic readers that hold the books must be purchased for each student.  A large portion of this expense can be offset by the savings on textbooks, though parents would most likely have to pay if the e-readers are lost, stolen or damaged.
     Financial costs are not the only consideration however.  Students who misplace some types of e-readers, or forget them at school or home will not be able to access any of the information from their textbooks - they are all located on the one device.  Similarly, e-readers are battery operated so occasionally students would be without their textbooks because they failed to recharge the device.
     Some students may find an e-reader more strenuous to read than a normal textbook.  The e-reading experience is not the same as reading a book.  Personally, I find the E-ink technology on my Kobo easier to read than text in a book or on a computer screen:  the text looks very similar to that in a book, the device is easier to hold than a book, and reading outside is just as easy as inside (unlike on a computer screen).  Not all e-readers have this technology.  The screen on the iPad, for example, is more similar to a computer screen and has the benefits of full-colour, and the costs of poor visibility in the bright sunshine.

Added costs of Apple's version of electronic textbooks:

Although I love my Mac computer, and most Apple products, including the iPad, I don't think that the iPad is the ideal e-reader for pre-University level students.  One huge impediment is the cost of the device.  Apple has not announced a substantial reduction in price of its iPad for schools, which puts the cost at nearly $500 per device per student.   Many school districts are struggling with tight budget constraints, and simply would not be able to manage the expense.  Similarly, parents would not want to assume the risk of paying for lost or damaged devices.
     The high cost also means that few households would have an iPad at home as a backup for those days when their child has forgotten their "textbooks" at school.  Apple does not allow their iBooks to be read on a standard computer.  The student must have an iPad, or some version of the iPod (including iPhone) to access the material.
     Perhaps a larger issue is that iPads were designed for entertainment and social communication, not for reading.  Yes, the reading experience on the iPad is just as good, maybe even better, than it is on other colour e-reading devices, like the Amazon Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox.  The iPad, however, does so much more than just reading.  For example, it is great for games, video, music and social communication.  In a classroom setting, in high school and elementary school, many students will find the temptation to use the device predominantly for non-textbook activities irresistible.  Many students will be distracted by the plethora of other cool things the iPad has to offer, and will procrastinate.

An Alternative model for E-textbooks:

Companies that offer alternative e-readers, like Amazon, Kobo, Sony and others, would be wise to launch a campaign extolling the benefits of their devices for schools over Apple's iPad.  Their devices offer all of the benefits of an e-reader without many of the costs associated with the iPad.  These companies have devices that cost close to $100.  I would suggest, however, that since they will have years of profit, first from selling the textbooks, and second from conditioning generations of readers to acquire books through their online stores, that they should offer at least a 50% reduction in the e-reader price as an added incentive for school boards to adopt their products.  At this price, schools could still save a lot of money with low-priced e-textbooks, even after incurring the cost of e-readers for all of their students.  Also, parents wouldn't be averse to assuming a $50 risk for lost or damaged e-readers.
     Sure, these readers aren't as fancy as the iPad, but they will be able to offer all of the benefits that really matter.  They can hold thousands of books, are light and easy to handle, they allow for searching words and most have a web browser for looking up additional references.  An added bonus is that both Amazon and Kobo offer free applications that enable a reader to access all of their books on any computer, PC or Mac as well as on the e-reader itself.  Student's who forget their e-reader at school, lose it or damage it can still access their textbooks - NO EXCUSES!  I think this is one of Apple's biggest flaws.  I have published books at the iBookstore that most readers can't access because of this huge limitation - they have to go to Amazon or Kobo to get them.  On the other hand, anyone who buys my books at Amazon or at Kobo, can read them on any computer thanks to the fantastic free applications offered by these companies.

Apple has argued that they offer a singularly unique, multimedia textbook reading experience.  They suggest that they have created the next generation of textbooks.  They may be right - their textbooks may be beautiful and fun to use.  I would argue, however, that there is no evidence that students using their textbooks will be smarter, score better on tests or be better informed than students using any other form of e-reader.  The distraction factor alone would suggest otherwise.  More importantly, I think that Apple has missed the point of a textbook.  It is a tool that should be efficiently employed, then put aside.  I teach my children to spend as little time as possible with the textbook: scan a required chapter and make notes on everything that you don't understand, trying to spend as little time as possible; put the book aside and rewrite the notes, highlighting areas that are unclear; then ask questions (of the teacher or using Google and online sources) until everything is clearly understood.  The textbook should not be attached to the student like an umbilical cord - they should take from it what they need, then set it aside.  Filling the books with interactive videos etc as Apple has done, encourages students to waste time.   Every teacher knows that one solution does not work for all students, even if that solution was created by Apple.  It is up to teachers to assess each student's needs and adjust the instruction accordingly.  How can a teacher do that when the student just wants to play Angry Birds all day on their iPad?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Today's Inspiration - homemade marshmallows

Today's inspiration is the look on the kids faces when they saw what I was putting into their lunches for school: homemade strawberry marshmallows.  While they slept, I made them for the first time.  It didn't take long.  I followed the instructions on the internet (mostly).  Use the link above if you want to give it a shot.  They probably should have set for a little longer - the recipe says 8 to 10 hours and I didn't finish making them until around midnight, so they were only 7 hours along when I drove the kids to school.  Nevertheless, they cut easily and look right, and have an amazing taste.  Next time I think I'll try chocolate!

My kids are accustomed to little surprises in the morning.  Usually these are either musical or literary.  I often work late into the night on writing or composing.  As such, while they eat breakfast I'll play them my latest song, or read a scene that I just wrote and ask their opinion.   Sometimes they offer suggestions for improvement.  Today, they had only praise for the candy.

I try to infuse the characters in my novels with a similar desire to create and collaborate.  All through the Socialite series solutions to problems are arrived at, well, socially, rather than individually.  For example, when Elle is struggling to think of a perfect Christmas present for Jacob, she asks his mom, who relates a very personal anecdote of a creative gift she once gave.  This inspires Elle to make Jacob's gift, rather than buy him something (the easier option for her since she is wealthy.)  The whole Socialite story, in fact, is about social interaction in its many forms: using the internet, sharing talents, and helping others (human and alien) to solve their problems.

So try a new recipe, make some marshmallows, then share them, to brighten someone's day.  And during the 8 to 10 hours that they take to set, download my books and read a really fun scifi adventure.

Amazon Kindle:

Apple iPad, Ipod, Iphone:


Friday, January 13, 2012

Teens, Society and Fiction

My teen children enjoy young adult fiction like Harry Potter and Hunger Games.  So one of my initial goals when writing the Socialite series was to create a series that they would like to read (they do, thankfully!)  During the construction of the series I wanted to include many of the issues that teens today encounter and have to deal with - but to show how an alien race would view these issues.  For example, what side would an alien species take on controversial issues like capital punishment or abortion.

Many of the main characters in Socialite are teens growing up in a society much like our own.  Since the series revolves around two families, the Liebes and the Amis (one human, one...not) brought together by the Socialite network, social issues are essential to the story.  As in our own society, social media exposes the characters of all ages to the best and worst issues from around the world.  Global events like natural tragedies, legal decisions and political intrigue are relevant to the daily lives of the main characters.

Much of the story involves a battle between individual desires and those of the rest of the population.  Unlike the message spread by the Recycling Karma campaign (or the Dalai Lama in the cartoon shown here),  the story reflects society realistically: people don't get what they deserve, they get what they get: bad/good things happen to good people, and to bad people.  Often chance is as important a determinant in the outcome of an event as a person's own actions.  Many evolutionary puzzles, including altruism, self-sacrifice, and suicide are brought into the story to help develop this view.

The story is neither dystopic, like the Hunger Games, or magical fantasy like Harry Potter.  It presents real issues in our society alongside the issues of the aliens.  The teens encounter issues of peer pressure, bullying, parental unemployment, teen sex, teen pregnancy and abortion.  At the same time they have the fate of two worlds to worry about.

Read Book 1: Bees to Benny for free, then buy the next three books in the series.

Amazon Kindle:

Apple iPad, Ipod, Iphone:


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Today's inspiration: ebook reader, coffee cup and friendly reminders

Inspired reflecting on the last few weeks' preparation for the holidays, the celebrations and, of course, the gifts.

Preparing for the holidays are always accompanied by emotions: joy of anticipation, anxiety searching for the gifts, peace when the shopping is over and fun and laughter with family and friends.  I remember when I was a kid and opening gifts was the huge thrill of the season.  When my children were young, my thrill was to share in their excitement.  This year was quite different.  We have reached a point of equilibrium: my two teenagers were just as excited to see me open a couple of my gifts, as I was for them to open theirs.

 We laughed watching a recent episode of the Jimmy Fallon show when his guest, SNL's Seth Meyers, talked about his family stocking tradition - it was just like ours!  We start with the stockings - carefully wrapped tubes of toothpaste, floss, lipbalm and other essentials that will be needed in the coming year ensure that each stocking is full of expected treasures.   The kids wake first, of course, get the stockings from under the tree and bring them to my room so we can open them sitting on my bed.  Then we take turns in the living room opening gifts, reserving the special gifts for last.  They had one for me, that they wanted to leave for the end, I had one for the two of them that WAS going to be last - as the parent I can insist.

Their gift to me was the longed for Kobo ereader that I mentioned in an earlier post.  As it turns out, my kids couldn't wait for me to open it - so they could read from it!  I loaded a book on the Kobo and read it over a couple of days, but not on the Kobo - I used the Kobo computer application to read it on my Mac instead, since my kids took turns reading books on the ereader.  They love it!

Of course the first books I loaded onto it were my own - the four books in the Socialite series.  My son had been too busy with school and music to read the fourth book "Unless Rules" over the fall so he wanted to read it on the Kobo.  My daughter wanted to read "A star is found" by Hollywood casting directors Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins.   Both kids enjoyed the similarity of the reading experience to a real book and the bonus of instantly looking up words on the dictionary.

Unexpectedly, they were both anxious to see me open my gift at the large extended-family gift exchange on boxing day.  Months before boxing day, I email a single name (pseudo randomly chosen) to each person in the family so they only have to buy a gift for one of the forty or so people at the gathering.  This  ensures that everyone has one gift to open.  Usually it is a sweater, or a gift card.  My sister-in-law had my name.  The kids obviously knew what I was getting.  It was a coffee mug, with a logo of the DarkRoast coffee chain from my Socialite story.  The font of the text, and the colours match the cover of my first book, "Bees to Benny."  I was really surprised.  Readers who have read book 4 will understand the importance of DarkRoast to the whole Socialite story.  My sister-in-law read the books when they first came out and has been on my case to get busy writing the next series, Socialite 2.  After a gift like that, what more motivation could I need.

The best part of the holiday season was spending time with lots of people.  The last year spent writing four books and composing the accompanying music has been very isolating.  The holidays were a social time: they did feel like a holiday - even more so than my trip to Mexico in the summer.  That trip was great, but it wasn't very social.  Spending hours laughing and talking with family and friends was just what I needed before embarking on another year of reading (on my Kobo) and writing.