On iBooks 2 And iBooks Author

I’ve now spent enough time with both McGraw-Hill’s Algebra iBook and iBooks Author to know two things:

  1. I have no idea what iBooks Author will do to the publishing industry writ large or textbook publishing writ small. My hopes are high we’ll see a lot of productive chaos as well-heeled districts and non-profits finance mid- to high-quality textbooks that are then dumped at no cost on the market.
  2. The McGraw-Hill Algebra iBook doesn’t change any of these relationships in any ways that interest me:

No new technology is so novel we can’t subject it to the question, “How does it change the relationship between student and teacher, student and discipline, one student to another?”

Algebra, as designed by McGraw-Hill for iBooks 2, is lighter by pounds. It’s indexed for search. It’s quick. You can highlight the text and insert notes. It removes one layer of abstraction between students and tools that already existed. Rather than accessing quizzes, tutorials, and enrichment videos by loading a CD-ROM into a computer or entering a password into a website, they’re a tap away.

That’s where the differences end. Students still interact with mathematics as they always have. In a typical McGraw-Hill unit, students encounter expositional text that leads into skill practice that leads into application problems, the kind of which I’ve been a noisy opponent. Apple promotes the interactivity of these textbooks but that interaction is rare and heavily prescribed. At one point, you can modify the parameters of a linear equation and watch it change on the screen. On another page, I found a 3D model of a building that illustrated some algebraic property. I could rotate it with my finger.

The textbook is now digital but students still encounter it as they always have: wisdom to be received, perhaps highlighted, annotated, and memorized, but not created, constructed, or made sense of. Teachers still interact with students as they always have. The platform doesn’t offer them any new insights into the ways their students think about mathematics. As far as I can tell, the iBook doesn’t establish any new link between the student and teacher, or strengthen any old ones.

What I’m saying, basically, is that I’d have to modify, adapt, and extend the McGraw-Hill iBook in all the same ways that I modified, adapted, and extended the McGraw-Hill print textbook. We’d pull out the iBook just as infrequently as its printed sibling.

The McGraw-Hill authors may not have had much imagination for the possibilities of digital math curricula. Their iBook feels like a print product, through and through. On the other hand, they may have had plenty of imagination but insufficient support from Apple’s authoring tool. I’d like to examine that question – what is possible with digital math curricula and can iBooks Author realize those possibilities? – in another post.

[Full disclosure: I’m a consultant for the Pearson Foundation on a different iPad project that’s still in production. Pearson has an Algebra 1 iBook that I haven’t reviewed here, only because I’m having a miserable time downloading these iBooks. The fact that its digital cover is the same as its print cover doesn’t exactly flood me with confidence, though. What they say about books and their covers, of course.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan,

    My first thought when watching your little demo video is that the video of the ball game doesn’t add anything at all. It’s somewhat akin to just having a picture of a ball game next to a word problem about a ball game, don’t you think?

    In fact, I found myself cringing at the white text displayed on top of the video. That reeks of poor design and I had trouble focusing on the question and rather preferred to watch the moving images.

    I wonder if this particular example isn’t just a really bad one. Like in many technologies, and as you point out, they just replicated their existing paper textbook into digital format and spiced it up with some video. Sad to see.

    I’m looking forward to the day when you put out a textbook that’s all your own. I hope that day comes soon.


  2. Michael Garcia

    January 26, 2012 - 9:08 am -


    Are there limitations to including videos in these iBooks? Based on ur presentation given at Asilomar 2011, it seems chapters can begin with motivations/videos that are followed by standard text material.

    It’s a cliche to say, but I still think we’re not thinking “outside the book”. We need to really push our imaginations, and it requires some serious collaborations.

  3. There are lots of changes that technology can offer, and I’d like to sloppily categorize these changes into two groups: (1) changes in the way we interact with information, and (2) changes in the way we interact with people.

    Smartboards, iPads, Khan Academy, Vi Hart, 1:1 schools, and interactive textbooks all fall very firmly into that first camp, of changes into the way we interact with information.

    Twitter, blogs, facebook have all changed the way that we interact with people.

    It seems to me that the really disruptive changes will occur when educational folks stop trying to disrupt the ways in which we interact with information, and start wondering how we we can disrupt the way we interact with people in education.

    Can we figure out a way to increase the number of peer interactions students have about learning? Can we use technology to make more teachers available to students, more of the time? What if there were someone live available to help in a little box in a textbook, instead of an automated quiz?

    All of these questions seem far more important to me than whether we can make a better textbook.

  4. MBP: I agree that “disrupting the way we interact with information” is not where we should focus. But I don’t believe the answer is in disrupting how we interact with *people*, either. We need to disrupt the very notion of “information” with respect to learning. Every time a new vehicle for information delivery pops up, it postpones the more challenging discussions about whether that information is actually useful, necessary, appropriate, in a relevant context, etc. We keep finding clever new ways to keep doing the wrong things.

  5. I for one was completely unimpressed with the iBooks textbook announcement for many of the reasons that both Dan writes, and Chris points out in the comments.

    When you think about changing how you engage with the materials and information, having a tactile display for interactives is nice and all, but provides no discernable advantage (when it comes to learning goals) over the desktop version of the same interaction. In fact, I’ve always felt that real physical manipulatives will always trump virtual ones.

    As for the social interaction mentioned by MBP, there was a HUGE opportunity here for Apple and the publishers to announcement a social learning network within each title, facilitated with iCloud or some other cloud based service, that would allow for the interaction of students in the same course directly within the digital text, rather than the separate iTunes U app.

  6. As long as the old publishers are the only ones that create content using new technologies like iBooks on the iPad, we’re not going to see much more than the old stuff, only from a screen in stead of on paper. But I do think there are people out there who could create really new forms of educational material, using iPads etc. So, I’m really looking forward to the moment that Dan (or other ones like you) is going to publish something. Till then, I’ll still enjoy your creative and inspiring blog.

  7. Dan,

    Have you by any chance reviewed textbooks from countries other than the US? Singapore math textbooks have received a lot of attention recently. I bought a stack for grades 1-11. To me, the grades 1-6 books are what you might call constructivist. I highly recommend reviewing such textbooks as it provides an international perspective to math ed. I’m enclosing a link below that provides sample pages…


  8. Math textbook providers are in the business of giving schools easy to use materials that allow teachers to teach to skills and their associated contrived word problems. This way lessons and units are manageable and students can master the objectives without their being too much frustration, too much thinking or too much real learning. Is that how we define math? What will it take for curriculum developers to include more open ended, authentic applications of math? Problems that allow kids to use their intuitive reasoning to solve problems. Looking forward to a book that is engaging and focuses on the big ideas of math, not skills and contrived word problems.

  9. A Dutch publisher made an online method. Dutch textbooks seem to have quite pseudo-realistic problems. However, half doesn’t work on iPads because of Flash (which can be overcome, because is just eyecandy) and Java (applets that have been used in education for many yeras, compare with Phet for physics). I am disappointed that ‘business’ comes before ‘education’.

  10. What a missed opportunity to go to all the trouble of shooting, editing, encoding and inserting a video into a math text, without thinking at all (so it appears) about how it would actually influence students’ learning! What a shame.
    My impression is that teenagers would despise the video, for its cheesy attempt to make a math problem “cool” or “interactive”. For a start, the text says “some adults and students go to a game” – for what purpose??? To do some “cool” “real life” math? Meh!!
    Just a thought: perhaps if students could be given a voice in purchasing decision about the texts they are required to learn from, publishers might think more about what the intended student audience thinks of the texts on offer.

  11. A related thought: is part of the problem here that some teachers prefer simple, non-constructivist problems with a clear solution path, as it makes their job so much easier?
    And since teachers have far more influence over which textbooks are purchased than students do, publishers produce texts that teachers are asking for.

  12. Ok, forest through the trees here. That video was not appropriate to the problem, but that doesn’t mean all videos will not be appropriate.

    My biggest question is how will schools afford to have a maintenance and replacement policy for ipads? Kids will be extremely hard on them. The other anecdotal comment I have is that there’s something peripheral and concrete about a book that I don’t get in a tablet experience. The ability to spread it out, to rapidly flip pages, the ability to look at multiple pages at once in a non-reduced font format, etc.

  13. Yeah, it seems like just a flashy print textbook. The release of iBooks would have been at least a bit more exciting if there was some sort of possibility of computer assisted learning embedded, maybe Siri-like. I want to see an iBook giving good tailored advice after being able to assess what a particular learner has been doing.

  14. I think that you definitley have some valid points here, but I’m interested to see how Pearson’s book stacks up. I’ve seen it, and it’s hard to even get past the design flaws. The interactivity appears VERY limited (mostly animations, little if any video). I’d like to see you review that book, too.

    I thought you had some really interesting points in the past, but this reeks of bias.

  15. I saw the Pearson book last week; I am not impressed. I realize the development time hasn’t been put in yet for something better, though.

    I’ve been waffling if I want to use iBooks Author for my algebra book. I’m pretty sure that would lock my format and I was hoping to have something accessible to computers as well as pads (knowing my district, we might see those things in our classrooms in 10 years if ever). On the other hand, I’m worried without at least some sort of widget-tool-assist it won’t get done ever.

  16. My thoughts parallelled yours, Dan, but I was refreshingly more impressed with the E.O. Wilson biology iBook text (do we call these ‘itexts’?):

    * Embedded videos
    * Every word on every page can be easily defined and searched with its built-in dictionary and search tool
    * Embedded interactives bring transformative value

    A nice example of the clear difference between the biology itext and the Pearson and McGraw-Hill offerings can be found on page 11 (contained in the free sample). The interactive there allows the learner to tap a different section of the insect and immediately view three skeletal samples – all directed by student interest. Imagine teaching triangles with this type of manipulative. I think it could go far in teaching students which side was the hypotenuse when they could manipulate a triangle right from within the text – and then see their importance by searching for the word triangle and noticing how frequent they are referenced in subsequent chapters.

    Still, I give it a year before we see enough solid itext titles in the Apple Store to make me leap for mathematical joy.

  17. Hi Dan, great questioning!

    Students have an Apple iPad instead of a backpack. Having a networked computer _is_ the improvement that you can build on to change your relationship with the student. The iBooks are not.

    Having iBooks that satisfy the current norm of education will drive more computers into the hands of kids, which is the real improvement.

    I’d like to give some input for your question “what is possible with digital math curricula and can iBooks Author realize those possibilities?”

    Apple as a market cap of 415 billion and McGraw-Hill as a market cap of 13 billion. Apple sells hardware. Less than 2% of its revenues were from the App Store. Having great content (iBooks) is justifying the price of the computer in some people’s mind. Will Apple make more money out of iPads or out of iBooks? I bet on iPads.

    Schools are locked in to Apple store. Content is packaged like a book + animations in a monolithic app (can you give a link to a student to a page? Can it be social?)

    Interactivity in iBooks can be made using JavaScript, like a normal website. Nothing more, maybe less.

    If you author content in the Apple authoring tool, you can sell it only on the iBook Store. If you want to sell it elsewhere, you have to export the text somehow and rebuild the layout and reintegrate your animations.

    Seems like it’s designed to softly convert an old industry, not reinvent it and push for hardware sales. Maybe that’s necessary to get enough computers into the hands of kids – and start another kind of learning revolution.

    Can somebody explain why it’s better than a website?

    P.S. I love these post:
    I prefer more open models that integrate the web, like the Google Chrome web store.

  18. I completely agree that putting old books on i pads will result in the same type of learning as before. Nothing will change besides the weight of the backpacks and perhaps some features that make grading faster.

    I know I’m biased, but I think that Arizona State has a great research based secondary math curriculum, that reflects the new standards for mathematical practice and doesn’t just rehash what you typically see in textbooks with a new font.

    Dan or anyone else with a discerning eye for curriculum-there are sample chapters from Precalculus Pathways online at:

    Thoughts? I’d love to get some pushback! I can share them with the author and you’ll have your chance to impact what kids are going to get access to in our pilot districts around the country.

  19. @Cameron, Have you piloted the handout on arclength and radian measure? When I see a handout like that, it is hard not to think that the author is completely out of touch with what goes on in a run of the mill high school classroom.

    Less intimidating approach of the top of my head: Provide some means of measuring (m&ms). First diagram is a circle with a central angle of 1 radian labeled “1 radian” and the radius labeled 1. Perhaps state that this is a unit for measuring angles and ask for an upper & lower bound on the size of the angle in degrees. Ask them to draw an angle of 2 radians on another circle also of radius 1. Ask them to estimate the number of radians for a central angle on yet another circle of radius 1. Ask them to draw an angle of 1 radian on a larger circle with a labeled radius of 3, etc. Next, provide circles with an unlabeled radius and unlabeled central angle and ask for the size of the angle in radians. Finally, ask what is so special about a 1 radian angle (perhaps giving some sort or hints to compare the arc and the radius), how many radians are in a circle, and how many degrees in a radian. This would still be a pretty ambitious introduction in my mind.

  20. Chris Craft:

    My first thought when watching your little demo video is that the video of the ball game doesn’t add anything at all. It’s somewhat akin to just having a picture of a ball game next to a word problem about a ball game, don’t you think?

    Spot on, Chris. I found the videos jarring at first, then shocking, then funny. If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. The videos are, by and large, that lousy. There’s a video of a guy spinning two basketballs on one finger to accompany the question, “The surface area of a basketball is x inches. How can you find the radius of the basketball.” It’s just pandering.

    Michael Garcia:

    Are there limitations to including videos in these iBooks? Based on ur presentation given at Asilomar 2011, it seems chapters can begin with motivations/videos that are followed by standard text material.

    The iBook Author makes it a simple matter to add a video. The content and purpose of those videos is a much trickier matter, though.

  21. @Carl

    Seems like it’s designed to softly convert an old industry, not reinvent it and push for hardware sales. Maybe that’s necessary to get enough computers into the hands of kids — and start another kind of learning revolution.

    How is iBooks 2 not pushing for hardware sales? The products are only viewable in their intended form on an iPad. You can author iBooks all day long, but in the end, Apple wants to sell more iPads, plain and simple, otherwise they would have made iBooks Author the next iWeb, and allow for publishing directly to the web in a slightly more open standard the .ibook.

  22. To be a little more positive here, hopefully this is version 1 of a book that will continue to improve. I’m interested to see where it goes in future editions (if the authors listen to and incorporate feedback).

    I actually thought that the graphing tool was a nice addition because it is at point of use and allows students to explore functions when first introduced to them.

    I also echo the sentiment of Adam above. I’d like to see an analysis of the Pearson book, too. From what I’ve seen, it is exactly like the print book.

  23. @ mr bombastic

    I’ve seen kids do the worksheet as written with wiki sticks.
    The author was a high school teacher and has taught out of this book many times with university Precalculus students. She frequently observes teachers using it in practice and makes changes based on their suggestions. I don’t think this is proof either way about your suggestion to introduce the idea another way and I appreciate your thoughts.

    I actually said I thought Precalculus Pathways was great because I went to a workshop with about 30 teachers who had used it for a year or more and they had great things to say about how it transformed the way they saw their kids and teaching. (plus, the usual test score boost that we are looking for in any intervention)

    However, as you might imagine, at first it is hard to get kids to buy in as they prefer something a bit easier. They tend to love it eventually.

    In any case, I thought it would be worth adding an example of another online textbook(albeit not a very flashy one) so that there was potential of talking about something that was substantially different than what Pearson was producing. It seems that most of us agree with Dan’s observations that the new textbooks are not giving us a new approach to teaching math.


  24. If you remember when the microwave first came out, the question was why do I need this, it does the same thing as my stove? I think the situation with eBooks is very similar, until you immerse yourself in the experience and discover the subtle advantages, you don’t appreciate the product.

    Do you remember when someone discovered that sneakers could be dried in the microwave? :-)

  25. Adam and Jason: the Pearson book you are referring to is NOT the curriculum Dan is working on. The published book is “Pearson Math”, an adapted version of the older “Prentice Hall Math”. You’ll have to wait at least 2 more years to see the new project.

    My biggest concern is that tools like the iPad are immersive to the point that students will ignore their instructors and each other. It’s pretty simple to get a student’s attention if they are looking at a textbook, because they’d probably rather be doing something else anyway! Pulling them away from a Youtube video is much more difficult.

    What’s going to happen in reality with these “interactive videos”? I think kids are going to find one or two they think are funny and watch those repeatedly. It seems like a huge waste of time and money. Are there any videos that add value to the math?

    I’m not saying the iPad or other tablets can’t be useful as tools for the math classroom, but the experience must be deliberately constructed to avoid these pitfalls. Student to student interactions are king and the technology here sets up an additional barrier to such interactions.

  26. This is the way things always start. People always pick the lowest hanging fruit, and boy is this low. Sadly, at least in math ed, we’ve never gone higher than that on mass. If someone can crack it, the market is enormous!

  27. @cameron, there were some nice hw questions in the pathways book.

    I don’t think the handout is too difficult. With a few adjustments, many students could do this with no input from the teacher. My complaint is that this handout and the commentary unnecessarily complicates a simple idea (between questions 1 & 2) and does not provide enough opportunities for the students to come to a good understanding of these ideas on their own before developing the arc length formula. I think discovery learning is often over done, but this is a topic that lends itself very well to giving the students some well sequenced questions and letting them run with it.

    1a) has students construct a circle of radius 1 wikki, then measure the circumference. I am fine with this as kind of a reminder of the relationship between radius & circumference. When I do this sort of thing, invariably several groups/students write 2pi wikki without measuring.

    1b) has students draw a central angle with an arc length equal to the radius. Radian & Radius are almost the same word, and almost the same thing in some sense. This question seems to be setting this idea up.

    Question 2) Asks the students to draw angles of 2.5 & 7 radians. Obviously they need to know what a radian is before doing this. Why not just tell them that the angle they drew in part 1a) has a measure of 1 radian. They could then answer question 2 in a very intuitive way without further explanation from the teacher.

    Instead, the suggested discussion between 1b) & 1c) is to say that a degree is a 360th of the circumference and a radian is a 2pi th of the circumference. On the one hand this language is inaccurate in that it implies degrees and radians are a measurement of length. My bigger complaint is that the students will lose sight of the main fact that a radian is in some sense a radius in all this abstract discussion justifying the definition.

    Question 3 & 4 are fine.

    5a) A 90 degree angle? Really? Why not use numbers that lead to the development of the arc length formula instead of forcing the students into a discussion that seems pointless to them. As a student, I would wonder why we continue to blather on about radians, etc. when you just do 75% of the circumference to get the answer.

    5b) General arclength formula from a diagram. In my experience, most students would not be able to get this without mixing in more questions like #3 & 5c first.

    5c) Uses the arclength formula from 5b) (plug & chug). This question should come before 5b) as a hint on how to develop the general formula.

  28. We are using the Singapore math series, Discovering Mathematics, for our 6th grade through to 10th. The program is integrated and the books present the best sequence of skills/concepts that I have seen for far, though I am not sure that any publisher gives me what I envision. So we supplement quite a bit with our own ideas and Dan, your blog etc has been a significant inspiration in this area. I have used many of your ideas, prompts, videos etc and the students always ask for more of this type of learning. If you know any other additional integrated resources, please share! And thanks!

  29. Elissa: looks like PR, because it is! The detail is available here:


    Here’s my question: why would you pilot an Algebra I course, then judge your success on the California Standards Test, which is not an Algebra test?? My understanding is that CST tests 6th and 7th grade standards only. There is a separate California “Algebra I” exam available, but that’s not the one used for comparison.

    The overall results from the school are available here (click on “CST Results”).


    Note that Harcourt is only saying that it is better than itself, and is not drawing comparison to other curricula, tablet or otherwise. However, the study does prove that the Harcourt textbook is not the best option for students!

  30. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t use an Algebra test either.

    Even worse, the graphic in the report breaks down the 2011 percentages of students proficient or better by goup (tablet vs regular class), but does not seperate out the 2010 percentages.

    With only two treatment groups, the authors must realize that having the 2010 percentages broken out is essential for any meaningful analysis. Maybe the tablet groups are better students and tested better in 2010 as well.

    There are all kinds of reasons that one class might just have better students than another. Sometimes the music kids have to be scheduled into the same classes, special education students may be more likely to be grouped together, etc. The authors appear to be incompetent or intentionally dishonest.

  31. Thanks for making me read the study more carefully.

    The studied group was a grand total of TWO classrooms of students: one class for each of two teachers. The data table (page 5) giving the overall information for the school is totally misleading. We never learn the actual number of students involved in the pilot, so who cares that there are 1,072 students in the school or 42,000 students in the district?

    It also drastically increases the margin of error for any kind of statistical study.

    Also increasing the margin of error is the phrase “Hey kid, here’s a free iPad you can have as long as you keep your grade up in Algebra I” ;)

  32. Dan, have you heard of makingmath.com? This site is math teacher’s dream come true. The platform runs ‘Hilbert’ Mathematica and it does what it says … . Students make math!
    A bit of mathematica programming is necessary . It is still in Beta but it will be ready soon.
    Watching videos and interacting on a CDF app is not learning. Creating a video about some concept in math , creating a Mathematica App, programming to solve some of the Euclid project problems …that’s math!