Reviewing Apple’s iBooks Author

Interactivity is where the iBook's real advantage over ordinary textbooks. Videos, sound clips and animations play within the iBooks itself, bringing the subject to life in front of our eyes. This is incredibly engaging for the user

Apple recently announced the launch of its free iBooks Author desktop application, which – they claim – “allows anyone to create beautiful Multi-Touch textbooks — and just about any other kind of book — for iPad. With galleries, video, interactive diagrams, 3D objects, and more, these books bring content to life in ways the printed page never could.” 

This post takes you through my humble first attempt at making my first iBook using iBooks Author. The gallery below contains screen captures of all the aspects I will cover in this review:

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First Impressions

When Apple announced the new iBooks Author app, my first reaction was to say about time! The iPad was clearly a powerful tool for content delivery in schools but, prior to the announcement, content creation and sharing was very much the realm of the professionals, which I was clearly not. Yes, you could use Pages to create multimedia documents which you could then export as ePub files, but the results look positively amateurish compared with what iBooks Author can deliver.

Using iBooks Author

iBooks looks very much like a cross between Pages and Keynote (Apple’s answer to Word and Powerpoint respectively). As a regular user of both, I felt I knew my way around iBooks Author instinctively from the word go. Even if you are not familiar with other native Mac applications, the ready-made templates and the intuitive tools and layout allow you to start writing your iBooks straight away.

An important aspect for someone, like me, who has lots of older word documents already saved in my hard drive, is that importing into iBooks author is as easy as dragging a word document into the application. It then automatically creates an iBook with it with the correct titles, chapters and sections. The same process applies to images, video and sound clips. This is a massive time-saver.

Publishing the iBook is a very straight forward affair too. I was first taken aback when the Publish button took me directly to a sign-up screen to become an iTunes Producer, as it made me think that the only way to distribute the content was through iTunes (thereby having to sign up to Apple iTunes’ rather restrictive producer agreement which essentially says: we own you!). I then realised that you could export the iBook as an ibook file, which can be distributed as you would any file and then be synced to any iPad using iTunes.

Interactivity

This is where the iBook’s real advantage over ordinary textbooks. Videos, sound clips and animations play within the iBooks itself, bringing the subject to life in front of our eyes. This is incredibly engaging for the user – at least for now, while this technology is fairly new and exciting.

In addition to multimedia galleries and 3-D animations, the application makes it very simple to add multiple choice questionnaires and drag and drop exercises using its widgets option. In the gallery, above, you can see what these activities look like. I’ve added a number of activities at the end of each section in my iBook that test the reader’s comprehension of the topic before they move on to the next. This is a real big plus for teachers.

Readers can also add personal highlights and annotations to the iBook, as you would in any exercise book. This is particularly useful to people, like me, who need to annotate their thoughts straightaway, otherwise they are gone… forever!

As a languages teacher, I have found the ability to add a glossary of terms and vocabulary especially advantageous and practical. Once a given word is added to the glossary, it is highlighted in bold in the main iBook, allowing the reader to tap on it to access further information, such as usage or meaning.

With it being my first iBook, I have not added any 3D animations (mainly because I could not get hold of appropriate ones, the process itself is as easy as adding a picture), Keynote presentations, galleries or extra HTML code (an RRS feed for example) or interactive images, all of which are widget options within iBooks Author. The result is nevertheless still a stunning interactive book which I hope, will help me deliver content to my students in an engaging, effective and, above all, pedagogically sound way.

Drawbacks

For many the main drawback will be the fact that it is an Apple only product. You need both an Apple Mac computer and an iPad to create and preview any iBook. The outcome of your labour of love then can only be read by an iPad (and not by any other tablet, like Android based tablets or Kindle tablets). This is quite restrictive, especially given the fact that Apple products tend to be considerably more expensive than the alternatives. I remain hopeful that, as this technology matures, common file formats and compatibility will emerge that would open up iBooks or eBooks to a wider audience.

Many have pointed out how an electronic version of a textbook is not really that big a deal in terms of the evolution of education. They are, in my view, right to a degree: iBooks do exploit and, to a certain extent, perpetuate the one-to-many, sage-at-the front model of education, but the fact that we are exploring new ways of creating and delivering content that can be created and shared by anyone (teachers or learners) with the right tools has to be, in my view, a step in the right direction.

It has been also said that the technology that iBooks uses is old (it is, after all, HTML based – the same as any webpage on the internet) and therefore an iBook really offers nothing new. I disagree. iBooks Author makes it incredibly simple to create and distribute an iBook. You can do it. Your students can do it. Even if it’s currently tied up with a particular platform, you do not need to be an internet expert or a web wizard to publish your content. Secondly, many have criticised iBooks and eBooks in general for being a glorified offline web-page. In my view, and in a world where wi-fi is not always accessible (I’m talking about our schools, not the third world!), the fact that it is offline is a definite plus, not a drawback, as users do not depend on a flaky wifi or an unreliable internet connection to access the content.

That’s all I can think of. I hope this review is useful to you and do let me know what you think. My first attempt at an iBook, still a work in progress, can be downloaded here.

José Picardo

José is Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School and a Fellow at Naace. He is interested in improving education and the way technology can be used to enhance and transform teaching and learning. José has been curating Box of Tricks since 2007 and holds a MA in ICT and Education.

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  • http://twitter.com/eyebeams Leon Cych

    Well done José – an excellent account that will spur people on to develop their own content. Perhaps there is a way of screen sharing with the iPad between a group of people. I’m sure some people will come up with workarounds and this is only day 1! Excellent first run description. Look forwards to seeing how this evolves.

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  • Steve

    Hey José, nice job. How do you deal with copyright issues with the images you use or articles you have sourced?

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      Hi Steve,

      When creating teaching materials, such as this iBook, I don’t worry too much about copyright as any pictures would be under fair use. For more widely distributed materials I always use pictures under a Creative Commons license.

  • doctorfresh

    Thanks for the review José.  I am also trying it out for a presentation that I need to do tomorrow – it is as easy as typing in Pages but far prettier.  I agree that there is nothing new to this but Apple have made it so simple to use and to create a product that looks spectacular.  I suspect my audience tomorrow will be mainly corporate windows users so I hope that the Adobe output looks ok.

  • http://artvankilmer.wordpress.com/ Arthur Klepchukov

    I’m extremely frustrated trying to import a Word doc and not getting any support for chapter or section titles. How did you format your Word documents to get them to import nicely?

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  • http://twitter.com/anthonydilaura Anthony DiLaura

    Jose- thank you for this great write up and sharing your work and thoughts. Despite the restrictiveness of the Apple eco-system there are more and more learning environments that are 1:1 iPads in which it makes great sense for teachers to create and distribute these ibooks. I really appreciated your comments in your final paragraph. A group that I am a part of in Michigan are starting a collaborative project this summer to hack together free, re-mixable, iba files for other teachers to use and augment. We’d love your insight and participation if you find this to be a worth cause. Find our community on Google+ here https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/112862452781960201400

  • Richard Allaway

    José – thats for the iBook Author write up – I share a lot of your opinions about the application. Here is what you can do with a bit of time, plenty of content (a geography teacher’s holiday snaps…) and a bit of geeky obsession: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/extreme-environments/id552753230?mt=11

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