The Gamification of Textbooks?

The word from Ars Technica that Apple plans to release a “GarageBand for Textbooks” tool has, understandably, begun to produce something of a buzz.

Apple is slated to announce the fruits of its labor on improving the use of technology in education at its special media event on Thursday, January 19. While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books—the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak—and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

Most of the discussion has been so far focused upon the advantages, in terms of cost and media-enhanced educational resources, that moving textbooks onto tablet computers would entail, or upon the likelihood of Apple succeeding in its attempt to break the back of the multi-billion dollar textbook publishing industry.  (Steve Jobs apparently thought the textbook publishing trade an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.”)

My own sense of this, which I’ve already articulated here, is that, even with a vast increase in available content for educational purposes (and most of the talk at this point seems to have centred around the K-12 market, rather than postsecondary education), the sheer cost of moving textbooks to iPads in a consistent and broad way is going to severely limit the degree to which this will impact upon teaching. Even were the entire textbook content for all of a postsecondary student’s required texts moved onto iPad apps, the price of the device remains prohibitive for most students.  (Arguably, a textbook app might work for iPhones as well, but there is something about the idea of reading Paradise Lost or Moby Dick on an iPhone that I find hilariously implausible.)

Apparently many K-12 schools have vast stores of under-used iPads available for classroom use . . . or so some are saying.  Perhaps some do, but I would imagine that a great many do not, especially among those schools that service economically-disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  Will a move to iPad educational applications widen the gap in an already two-tiered educational system?

And then, of course, there is another issue: do we really want Apple cornering the market on digital content for teaching?  I sure don’t.

But I am particularly intrigued by the analogy being employed for this putative new textbook-creation tool:  “GarageBand for Textbooks.”  While I do know musicians who have employed GarageBand as a serious composition and/or recording tool, it is, of course, really a game.  It’s powerful, easy to use, and, most importantly, oodles of fun.

How well will the analogy hold?  Will the new textbook creation tool be oodles of fun too?

Cards on the table.  I am interested in digital textuality and eTexts for all sorts of reasons — pedagogical, ideological, and academic.  But one of the salient reasons that I produce eTexts is that it is fun to do so.  Creating a beautiful and usable interface, playing with code, and, finally, seeing one’s productions come to life on the screen — well, it’s simply a whole lot more enjoyable that producing a manuscript on Word, isn’t it?  Building digital resources permits me to employ both my scholarly skills, and my creative bent.

Are footnotes in the key of C, or G?

One of the things that a textbook creation tool may do, I think, is make that same “fun” available to a much broader audience than is currently the case.  And that is a very good thing, because it will empower that enormous pool of talented and brilliant scholars out there who are currently locked out of the digital world because they don’t have the necessary technical skills to engage with it.  It means that all of those brilliant pedagogues, writers, editors, and thinkers who haven’t had the time or inclination to learn coding will now be able to make their presence felt in our world, the world of digital learning and knowledge. And, if it is fun as well as easy to do so . . . many of them will do just that.

Interestingly, I have been giving much thought of late to precisely this problem: how can we make it easier for those lacking technical skills to engage in what we in the digital humanities are already doing?  I confess, the idea that we might make it “fun” to do so had not occurred to me . . . until now.

I’m not sure that I would characterize this potential phenomenon as a “democratization” of digital humanities, but I do know that one of the things that has most troubled me about our field (or whatever you want to call it) is that it has been, by its very nature, “exclusive.”  Listening to an absolutely wonderful talk by Tim Sherratt the other day, as he spoke about the ease with which one can script extensions to more effectively data mine online archives and resources, I found myself a mite troubled by the suggestion that producing these kinds of tools was “easy.”  For those in the room listening to the paper, yes, this was probably the case.  But then this was, for the most part, a self-selecting audience of digital humanists who are already likely to possess such basic skills.  What of those who don’t?  Does the free availability of such tools online fully address the degree to which certain skill sets have produced a “digital elite”?

Of course, the “exclusivity” of the digital humanities cuts both ways:  it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there has been so much resistance to digital scholarship in mainstream academia, and why, despite some assistance from the MLA in providing tools for evaluation, it is still so difficult and perilous to attempt to build a scholarly reputation in the humanities via this route.  Could it be that the gamification of building eTextbooks will have the effect of making the digital humanities more “understandable” to non-techie academics, and so also more “acceptable”?

Well, this would also be a good thing, would it not?

One last dimension of this gamification of textbooks is also worth mentioning.  Quoting a white paper by Dr. William Rankin and others, the Ars Technica article goes on to imagine a brave new world of interactivity that might well arise from these new textbook apps:

Such digital texts would let students interact with information in visual ways, such as 3D models, graphs, and videos. They would also allow students to create links to additional texts, audio, and other supporting materials. Furthermore, students could share those connections with classmates and colleagues.

“What we really believe is important is the role of social networking in a converged learning environment,” Rankin told Ars. “We’re already seeing that in Inkling’s platform, and Kno’s journaling feature. Future digital texts should allow students to layer all kind of other data, such as pictures, and notes, and then share that with the class or, ideally, anyone.”

Here, we are of course in more familiar territory: the use of game-like features to enhance pedagogy. This vision of interactive, interconnected digital textbooks really represents a turn to the social media model of learning: interconnectivity, direct participation, and “remix” are all part of this imagined future for the classroom.  Will making textbooks “fun” for students in this way increase their engagement with them?

Perhaps . . .

Is such a goal viable now, and worth the price of handing the keys to the textbook cupboard over to Apple?

Well . . .

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