Experimenting with iBooks Author

I recently took the step of dipping my feet in the Apple pool, much to the surprise of many people that know me and my preferences. There were a few reasons that I decided it would be a good idea, but one of them was the opportunity to experiment on my own time with iBooks Author.

I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a book. A few ideas for topics have been bouncing around, one being one in which the concepts of mathematical thinking are explored through programming. Given that all Mac computers have Python installed automatically, not to mention the ease that it can be installed on other platforms quite easily, Python is a perfect fit.

Now that I’m set up with my Mac, I’ve spent the last couple of days playing with it and getting to know its quirks. It does have quirks. I spent a couple of hours today battling a mystery white box that covered anything that slid into it, and that remained even after saves, restarts, and reboots. Eventually I got rid of it (though I’m not totally sure that I am sure how) and put together an activity I plan to have some independent study students work through this year.

The quiz options are nice ways to make things interactive, but they have all the same downsides of multiple choice questions. If there was a fill-in-the-blank option, I could very easily see putting together my own self-guided lessons along the lines of Udacity. That’s really what I’m looking for. The really powerful thing to have would be an HTML5 Python interpreter, and I haven’t yet looked to see if something exists that would work with the interface.

I found out late in the process that images placed in landscape mode only show up in the portrait orientation if they are set to be ‘inline’ instead of floating or anchored. Backsliding ensued.

On the whole, it’s a nice free publishing platform, including for nice PDF files. I didn’t have much multimedia material to throw in, and my attempts to do so would have been for exercising features, not for enhancing the book as a learning opportunity. As many have noted previously, iBooks author offers quite a bit of horsepower for generating flashy multimedia textbooks, but the extent to which it revolutionizes education isn’t quite there. Opportunities for interfacing with others reading the same content through chat, messages, or something like that would be a step in that direction.

For what it’s worth, feel free to check out the final product below. While the text is written as if it’s a finished book (“More information on this can be found in the Appendix”), it very much isn’t. Just an experiment to fill my hours battling jet lag back in China.

Mathematical Reasoning with Python

Selling mathematical thinking the Apple way

After reading Gizmodo’s post on the recently created blog Applefied Ads, I started thinking about the relationship of good advertising and the public relations problem that learning mathematics has.

Most people think of math class as that “special” time of day when you learn step-by-step procedures on how to do something. I’ve posted on this before, so I don’t need to go into it in detail. The common idea that math class is a time for nothing more than skill development is the reason this problem exists.

One thing that’s interesting about Apple is that their advertising is always focused first on what it allows someone to do. Some companies often focus on the speed of the processor, the number of ports available, or installed memory. While these are things that Apple might mention in their ads, it isn’t the first thing that is said about a product. Without exception, Apple focuses on how the product will improve things or be different from what is already possible. Despite the media rich world we live in, it does so in a strikingly minimalist fashion.

Textbook companies are faced with the task of engaging with media overloaded students and connect with the oft repeated goal of making math education focused on “the real world”. In doing this, they usually stuff their pages with as many pictures as they can be found, contrived examples, and carefully crafted “investigations” that usually are nothing more than a series of guided steps to a single end. Dan Meyer does an amazing job of pointing out how Pearson has already tried to do more of the same in creating electronic textbooks in this post.

Dan has also done incredible work in getting the mathematical problem to jump off the page or screen, but in an understated and minimalist way through the power of multimedia. If done correctly, you don’t need a bunch of fluffy text or pictures to explain a math problem to a student. A question and a picture or video, and often just a picture, is all that is required to set a student off investigating and developing problem solving skills. In math, these are the skills that will have lasting power and utility for a student beyond a single school year, not the steps of an algorithm.

I wonder what happens if we make a concerted effort to sell math (or any subject for that matter) in the same way that Apple does. What does it enable us to do? How does it let us look at the world in a new way? How can its elegance and beauty be captured through a picture and a few carefully chosen words? How do we get students to think about it as a philosophy?

My purpose is NOT to dress mathematics and mathematical thinking as a ruse to fool students into being engaged by it. This is what many of the textbooks do already. I’d love to see what draws students in and gets them thinking mathematically without our having to mess it up by talking or explaining it further. Less is more.

How would you sell the classes you teach in a way that engages students without tricking them? How would you show what your course is about on the first day of class? Can you do this with a picture and a few words? Try it and share what you create.