English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

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The English department got new textbooks this year. They smell good, like print books should.  Their covers are glossy and their corners still crisp. And at around 1500 pages, they weigh about 20 pounds each.  Our students nearly cried at the thought of having to wag them from locker to class and from class to home.  “But, we got these iPads.  Why can’t we use them to access textbooks somehow?” they whined.

And to some degree we could. Holt, Reinhart, and Winston provided an online version of the book accessible to each student through a user name and password on a site we can access through Safari. Textbook companies seem interested in riding the powerful wave of momentum that we call technology in the classroom. Accordingly, recently Apple announced its series of textbooks for the iPad and seized our administration’s attention.  Our students’ parents pay a considerable technology fee for our use of laptops, smart boards, and iPads, and they expect to see the tools used in the classroom.  Here was a new way to further convince parents of the value of our high-tech tools–use them to supply textbooks.

So, this week, my colleague and I (check out his review of the physics textbook over at techgeekteacher.com this coming Thursday) downloaded a couple of books for examination.  The offerings make an English teacher feel a little neglected, because for the moment, unless you teach science or math, there’s not a book for your class.  But, I have a Biology degree and know a little about science, so I decided to check out the McGraw-Hill biology text.

I’ve been since weighing the pros and cons of the book, in all honesty looking for a negative.  I’m not sure why, but I wanted to turn my nose up and sniff, “This is just something shiny and pretty for students to play with.” But, I can’t really find many negatives.

When I look at chapter 1, “The Study of Life”, what I see depends of the way I hold the iPad.  If I hold it landscape style, a scroll bar across the bottom of the screen allows me a thumbnail glimpse of every page in the chapter.  The introductory pages provide me with essential questions to guide my reading, the main idea, and a list of new vocabulary words–just like the print version of the text.  The difference is that the vocabulary words are already placed on notecards for my review. At the top of the screen, I touch the note card icon. The notecards containing the words and any passages I’ve highlighted as I’ve read pop up for my review. (Have I mentioned how much money I spent on 3×5 notecards and how much time I spent  making flashcards in college?  Think of all the effort the iPad could have saved me!) Then, at the end of each section of the chapter, I can take a quick interactive five-question quiz, and the book will tell me if my answers are correct or incorrect. At the end of the full chapter, I can take an entire pre-test and practice for standardized tests as well.

In addition to study features, the visuals in the text-book add interest and appeal. As a student, I’m not sure I ever paid attention to the pictures in the chapters, or even the diagrams and graphs unless the teacher specifically emphasized them.  But the pictures in the iPad version of the text-book are irresistable–and that’s on my now outdated iPad 2. When I touch them they slide forward into the foreground. In chapter one I can scroll through a series of pictures that highlight the characteristics of living organisms.  An amoeba shows me that all living organisms have cells.  A picture of an anteater’s nose demonstrates how structure is related to function in living organisms. On the next slide, I can examine a tadpole and a frog side by side to learn that all living organisms grow and develop..and so forth and so on.  Scrolling through these slides appeals to the visual learner in me who needs more than just words.  Sometimes the pictures link to video.  For example, in chapter seven, a video demonstrates how the components of a plasma membrane are in constant motion, sliding past each other.  I can’t help but think that students who might quickly become bored with the traditional textbook might study just a little longer and retain information just a little better thanks to the visuals.

Also, after a student downloads the book, wireless connection becomes unnecessary to access the book or video capabilities.  However, this same advantage might be a disadvantage when it comes to the amount of space the book and its related materials take up in the iPad memory.  Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it would be possible for a student’s iPad to hold a full-sized textbook for each class if the iPad holds numerous apps as well.

I noticed that some of the titles available align to the common core standards, which is one of the primary buzzwords in our standards-based educational discourse these days, which ups the appeal to our administrative team as well. However, I also plan to show the book to our Biology teacher and get her initial reaction–perhaps she won’t be as taken with the bells and whistles and might give the actual textbook a more critical eye.  I’ll update this post with her feedback.  What about you, readers?  Has anyone out there previewed this or any other of the text books for iPads?  What are your impressions?

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