Have You Ever Watched a Movie in a Textbook?

Apple apparently has announced new plans to make inroads into the education market, boldly claiming to have reinvented the textbook for the iPad, and it gets the dismissal it deserves from Kieran Healy over at Crooked Timber, while Adam Kotsko chimes in with his own criticisms. Both of them get at something that it seems like Apple overlooks in its new desire to replace textbooks with iPads: when it comes to reading lots and lots of text for the purpose of learning information and ideas, it’s really hard to beat books. Healy even cites the popularity of Instapaper as a demonstration that if you have something you really want to (or have to) read, all the flashy graphics and sound an iPad affords you really gets in the way, “You’ll read it because you’re already interested in it, and you’ll even seek out and pay for a way to make the reading and learning experience static and simple, because you don’t want to be distracted.” 

What is somewhat unstated here but is, I think, important to this conversation is that what the innovations behind something like Apple’s new initiative overlook is precisely the advantages that books as a technology give us. Writing provided us with a way to store ideas and information and make them available for others (or ourselves) without requiring that we go through whatever specific mental processes first inspired those ideas, and leaving us free to go without the trouble of getting our bodies in close enough proximity to each other and for long enough a time to express these to each other verbally. A book provides the best way we’ve found so far or giving us access to a huge amount of writing, of combining loads of ideas and information into a discrete object we can possess. And we read a book (when we read for information or learning, at least) in order to encounter ideas and information. But this isn’t an instantaneous process, and we don’t always internalize information and ideas on our first encounter with them. What books give us is an object we can manipulate fairly easily, that we can pick up and set down however and whenever we wish. That is, books make very few demands of us in order to be useful. Animations and video and sound, however, always demand at the very least that we sit through them for a certain duration of time in order for them to useful. And they don’t work as well for going back over; we might reread a paragraph or a page or a chapter any number of times in a way that we pretty much never do with informative audiovisual objects. In other words, no matter how smooth the iPad’s integration of flashy audio and video stuff is, in terms of being a textbooks its fundamental utility is still going to be based on how well it competes with a book in providing an undemanding way for us to approach and access ideas and information. If iPad’s are going to replace textbooks, it seems like they’ll have to do it on those terms–somehow making textbooks more convenient, not making textbooks awesome.

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6 Responses to Have You Ever Watched a Movie in a Textbook?

  1. Kemael Johnson says:

    In the “tech-book” vs real book conversation, I’ve always been partial to the real thing, so I’m almost certain to be resistant to an electronic enhancement of the book in general. That’s not to say that I am completely against it. As far as accessibility goes, I wouldn’t give up something like Google Books or electronic article databases for the world, because of the convenience of them. But, even given that convenience, there is something about being able to physically handle a book or magazine that is missing from a computerized version and that, consequently, leaves me with a colder experience. For me, it comes down to feeling a certain nearness to the author and his/her ideas. Dog-earing a page, underlining a passage, taking sprawling notes in the margins, or sometimes even just holding or looking at the book gives me a sense of communicating with the writer and his/her ideas through the physical medium itself in a more personalized way. I guess it’s a proximity-authenticity kind of thing.

    • Marcus says:

      I’m always pretty sympathetic to those reasons for preferring physical books over e-books, too, although I have to say that once my wife got me a Nook I found the experience of reading novels on it much more enjoyable than I’d thought I would. Especially in the case of the reading that I do purely for fun I have to say I’ve found some interesting advantages in my e-reader—for example, it’s way easier to read on the Nook while I’m exercising on an elliptical than it would is to try to read a physical book.

      But all those kinds of personalization you mention are still much easier and more effective with physical books than electronic ones. And it seems to me like if Apple or whoever wants to really try to make e-books that effectively replace physical books, they should be looking toward that area: rather than trying to ‘enhance’ textbooks by adding all sorts of flashy graphics and sounds, they should work on making it easier for the reader to interact with the books in ways similar to how they interact with physical books—taking notes, underlining, marking pages, etc. E-readers have some of that functionality, but it’s all really clunky and difficult to use, in my experience. It’s much easier to really dig into a physical book with a pen in my hand than it is to try to navigate around all that functionality in an e-book.

      • lmaruca says:

        Jumping into this conversation somewhat belatedly to say I’m with you both on this. I actually prefer my Kindle App for pleasure reading: my middle-aged eyes prefer the clarity of the high def screen to the cheap paper/low-contrast type that most cheap paperbacks employ. I am experimenting with reading scholarship there as well. I think that will work because I can access and copy my notes at Amazon (I should be, but am not really, creeped out by the fact that the store them there).

        However, we do not yet have ways to really interact with the text and as Kemael says, personalize it, in ebooks. I find this especially true when teaching: I not only need marginal notes, but I often use the front cover to lay out my overarching discussion points, and most crucially, I need to be able to use my favorite read-writing technology, the post-it note. Some of my teaching novels are even color-coded with post-its! It’s strange that digital technology in this regard is so far much less flexible, since clearly the flexibility is there. I’ve actually presented a paper at SHARP on this topic; maybe I’ll post it (sorry!) on my blog.

      • Marcus says:

        One of the first things I thought when I was first reading on my Nook was how potentially useful it could be for reading scholarship–taking notes, linking notes, and that feature you mention of being able to access them online could potentially be extremely useful! And as soon as I tried it a bit, I was struck by how practically difficult it was to use for this in its current form. So I agree that one of the strangest things about the technology is how non-flexible it seems to be. Maybe they just need to get some academics in their product development meetings!

  2. lmaruca says:

    I also wanted to comment on the video aspects of the new iPad textbook. While I do think the “revolutionary” aspects of this new Apple endeavor are way overstated, I also think there is plenty of room for video in education. I’m going to hazard a guess, Marcus, that you are a fairly word-oriented person, deeply dedicated to and comfortably ensconced in print culture. Don’t forget, though, that many of the kids coming up, Harry Potter series notwithstanding, are not. And why should they be? Though print has its advantages, video’s ability to use sound, animation, graphics etc allows it to present information more fully and vibrantly. And it CAN be rewound and restudied. This is the appeal of Khan Academy (see http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1 and http://www.khanacademy.org/), and it’s this method of learning that Apple is trying to tap into.

    • Marcus says:

      Wow, that’s pretty awesome–I’d never heard of that before. (My wife’s taking Calculus classes right now so I might point this website out to her). That Wired article really plays up the importance of the fact that the students can use the website on their own time, essentially giving them their own one-on-one tutor, and I can’t help but wonder exactly why the Khan videos work better than a textbook in that respect (a book could also be seen as each student’s own one-on-one tutor). Clearly they are working better for the students in the Wired article, but I’m hesitant to accept that it’s because of an inherent superiority of the video format to text. But maybe that is just me and my print-culture self.

      Another thought of protest I had was to think, “Well, this might work for math and such things, but no one’s ever going to sit through enough videos to, say, learn everything you can learn from a book like Heidegger’s Being and Time.” Of course, that doesn’t really have anything to do with the effectiveness as textbooks of iPads and web videos. But I also have to admit that, in the transition from oral to print culture, some people probably thought it was impossible that anyone would ever sit down to read an argument for long enough to learn everything they could learn from a lecture (or a Socratic back-and-forth). A serious philosophical text made out of youtube clips will probably seem impossible right up until someone does it, I suppose. Which puts me in mind of Brian Rotman’s Becoming Beside Ourselves, which Jeff Pruchnic had us read last semester in 7001. Rotman’s main point in that book is to describe the importance of a fundamental change from print to cyber culture (I think he’s a little vague about what exactly he sees as this next step) analogous to the change from oral to print culture, and specifically how this change will affect our notion of self.

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