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Kieran Healy: What Is the Best Virtual Reality Tool Ever?

The book, he says--or, rather, the column of print.

Kieran Healy:

Apple for the Teacher: Instapaper and the Persistence of the Textbook: In his presentation, Apple’s Phil Schiller heavily criticized the static, text-heavy format of the traditional texbook. Far better to present information dynamically with graphics, supporting illustrations, movies, interactive components and all the rest of it.

Sure, why not? But—-consider how many of the most sophisticated computer users consume "content" online, perhaps especially the ones who use iPads. Do they seek out material that looks like this? Do they want multi-modal, multimedia formats? Do they love jazzy Infographics? No. They use Instapaper or some equivalent tool to create reading lists for themselves, and to read those articles in a format that deliberately strips out a lot of the original presentation and replaces it with simple, clean, easy-to-read, blocks of text that look a lot like a well-designed piece of outmoded 1950s technology.

Why do people like Instapaper so much? It’s because they’ve chosen to read what they save, and the app lets them keep it and read it in a straightforward, uncluttered way. Finding the good stuff is the hard part, along with the ability, motivation, and opportunity to read things: once you’re there, you don’t need the dynamic illustrations or zooming or supporting illustrations. 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.

A similar point applies in education. Technology by itself—-let alone Keynote transitions, animations, or what have you—-will not by themselves engage students. The promise of "technology in the classroom" has always been that it will magically "engage" students in what they have to learn. But it never does: you still need a good teacher, the opportunity to learn, and some motivation of your own. More dynamic textbooks aren’t the solution to the problem of education—-they’re not even the solution to the problem of textbooks.

It’s strange to see Apple going down this well-worn road. When the iPad was launched, a stock criticism of it was that it was a device made for consuming rather than making or doing things. Very quickly, people found ways to use it that showed it was capable of a lot more than that. Apps like GarageBand or Star Walk or Leafsnap—-there are loads more—-take advantage of the iPad’s computing power and portability in ways that put it in a different class of activity from reading textbooks or sitting working at a computer. It’s these sort of use-cases where a device like the iPad really shines. So it’s a pity that Apple has chosen to re-enter the education market with a pitch about Reinventing the Textbook that, frankly, sounds pretty old hat. The reason, I suppose, is that there’s potentially a lot of money to be made selling the things to schools as replacements for the books.

Where Kieran may be wrong--not is wrong, but may be wrong--is that he may miss the fact that humanity is divided into two groups: we for whom the column of print is the best virtual reality tool ever, and the rest of the human race for whom it is not.

We need Instapaper, a quiet room, and the Lynx browser. The rest of the human race may need the productions of iBooks Author.

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