iBooks Author: Making Textbooks (Much!) More than Text – A Short Introduction

iBooks Author: Making Textbooks (Much!) More than Text – A Short Introduction

17:24 22 January in iBooks Author


This week, Apple announced some changes to iBooks and iTunesU, as well as introduced a new authoring tool for iBooks: iBooks Author. I was excited to see iBooks Author, to see how it could change how we think about textbooks—or any eBook for that matter. Typically, when I think of ebooks, I think of the first Kindle—how amazing it was to see electronic text on a screen smaller than most actual books.

Amazing, but still book-like. What about someone like me—someone who has always preferred learning by watching over trying to read page after turned page of a a boring text book. With Apple’s new iBooks, it’s possible to reach both those who prefer to read and those who prefer to watch or to work with interactive media. An explanation in text can be accompanied with HTML widgets, videos, or Keynote presentations, allowing for interactive exploration. (Content can even be dragged in from Word so that there’s no need to retype anything already produced.)

In this post, I’ll highlight how iBooks works. After installing iBooks for free from the Mac App Store, launch it from the applications folder on your Mac.

iBooks Author

The first time you launch iBooks Author, you’ll see some Apple designed templates you can begin with (see below). You must start from a template, but templates can be changed, so–even if there’s no template you particularly like–choose one something like what you’re thinking and redesign it.

Template Chooser

iBooks Author will then come up with some starter pages for you to get moving. On the left you’ll see “Book Title,” “Intro Media,” “Table of Contents,” and “Glossary,” like this:


These, as you might guess, allow you to set up the different parts of your book.

Book Title: Change the title of your book, as well as its cover. You’ll see it automatically provides an image, but drag-and-drop your own artwork into the title area. Then change the author and title, and you’re good to go.

Intro Media: This is a very nice feature. You can set up an introduction video that plays for the user before the book actually launches–say, your trademark logo, an animation (like what Lynda.com does for all their recordings), or even an introduction from the teacher explaining what the book is about.

Table of Contents: The table of contents actually auto-generate as you build your book, but you can do some stylizing work here.

Glossary: As you build your book, you can add terms to the glossary, which then show up here. But you can also use this button to add terms or to modify how the glossary appears to users.

As for the toolbar, it should be familiar if you’ve worked with Mac applications. (One thing I’ve always liked about Apple is the way they try to give their applications the same look and feel.) But here’s a bit of help nonetheless.

You can insert chapters, sections, or pages:

You can also toggle through different views within your authoring tool. From here you can add rulers, show the layout boundaries, and more:

With the next part of the toolbar, you can change the page layout. Normally, when you change the layout it should look similar, but Apple has done something different with the iPad. When an iPad is held in landscape mode, any interactive widgets flow with the page content, but when rotated to display a portrait layout, it focuses only on the text and removes all widgets for that page into thumbnails on the left. The widgets are still easily accessible (a quick tap on them does the trick), and this feature allows users more interested in focusing on the text to do so easily.

Then come a few simple buttons–“Text,” “Shapes,” “Table,” “Charts” (see below). There shouldn’t be too many surprises here for those familiar with Apple applications. (But take a look at the variety of 3-D views available under “Charts.”)

Next on the toolbar comes one of my favorite things about iBooks. You can insert different interactive widgets here. Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out so far.

Gallery: I’ve built many galleries in Flash, and let me tell you that Flash is more difficult than iBooks Author. Just insert the widget into the page, then drag and resize it to the position you want. Next, select multiple images and drag them into the widget. And that’s it! Take a look at the images supplied by iBooks Author and add your own captions to them. The user can then swipe through the images from the page, or pinch to get a closer view of the images and swipe through the images that way.

Media: I love the idea of having videos right inside my books. I’m constantly working through technical and programming books, and, while the books are well written, I find myself wanting to see what I’m reading about. I’m picturing myself reading a book on how to build an iPhone app, working my way through a section on building tables in iOS–and then being able, while I’m at it, to watch a video demonstrating what I’d just read about. It’s a brilliant idea and needs to be done with more technical books. All you have to do here is drag-and-drop your media into the widget once it’s on the screen.

Review: I’ve spent a lot of time in the eLearning realm. Many eLearning tools allow you to build interactive quizzes, so the idea here is not terribly new to me. But in terms of textbooks, this is fantastic. You remember the review at the end of textbook chapters from your school days—multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank. Like me, you only looked at the review when required because it required grabbing a notebook and a pen. Here you can set up the same sort of review, but no notebooks or pens needed! The user just touches the answer on the screen. And setting it up is easy. Once you insert the widgets, go to your inspector window. You can add more than one question and choose what type of question you want by selecting the plus icon:

As you can see, standard question formats are available, but I’d recommend doing some drag-and-drop questions as well. Experience has taught me that most learners prefer drag-and-drop, especially when they need to do matching (an item with the label of a picture, for example).

Keynote: Keynote can already do some pretty amazing things. It has some nice animations, some handy click-to-reveal items, and it allows for interactive materials. So, to see iBooks Author integrating with Keynote is exciting to me. (I much prefer Keynote over PowerPoint, but you can also open up PowerPoint files in Keynote and then save them in Keynote format. If you work with PowerPoint, then, don’t start worrying: there’s a work-around.)

Interactive Image: It’s common in eLearning to have an image for users to explore. Apple makes that easy with this widget. Just drag in an image and then add dots with pop-ups. The user clicks on the dot and gets the pop-up to explain. (I’m imagining a biology textbook with images of animals. That‘s the dorsal fin!) Engaging the learner this way aids memory.

3D: Not having any experience with 3-D files, this was (is still) an uphill battle, but the idea is to add a 3-D element so that the user can use iBooks to toggle around that 3-D image. In the explanatory video, there’s an impressive illustration of cell structures in 3-D. Obviously, this tool can take learning to a different level. It does, though, requires some knowledge of 3-D tools.

HTML: Finally, the one I was most excited about was the HTML widget. But when I began exploring, I quickly found out that it’s not as easy as dragging in a simple HTML file. This actually requires that you build a widget in Apple Dashcode. Widgets are normally used for the Dashboard on your Mac, but they are still HTML based. So, technically, it’s still an HTML content, but in order to be brought into iBooks it needs to be saved as a Dashcode widget. This was very complicated, so I’m planing on a separate post on the details.

One of the best things about iBooks is the one click it takes to get a sample on your own iPad. Simply plug in your iPad and hit the iPad icon on your tool bar:

After a few seconds the book will show up on your iPad. Note: You must pull up the iBooks application in order to view it, so if you have your mail app open you will not see it. Pull up iBooks to view the book, and then you can test it out right on your iPad.

From here you can publish right to the iBooks library as well:

I haven’t done this yet, but I hope to do so soon.

I’m really excited about what iBooks Author can do to make eBooks more interactive and engaging for learners. I think this will change the way we think about not only textbooks but any type of book. I think it’s fair to say we won’t be able to call them just “textbooks” for much longer–there will be so much more than text there.

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Jeff Batt

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