Apple’s mega announcement of their new iTunes U courses and, more interesting to me, their new iBooks Author app has many of us thinking anew about the state of textbooks and informal learning and openness and a whole bunch of other things. It’s been interesting to watch the “debates” on Twitter (and elsewhere) between those in the “Oooo shiny” camp and those in the “Apple doesn’t get it” camp. I think I’m falling more toward the latter as it seems to me at least that this is more about repackaging the same old stale content into the same old interactive content provided by the same old content providers with little of the spirit of sharing that I find most powerful about the Web built in. Far be it from me to suggest Apple doesn’t have the right to float this model, but I’ve yet to see how this really advances education in meaningful ways without having something with an Apple logo on it in your backback or pocket to make it work. That’s a bug, not a feature.

But as I said, the interesting part of this announcement is the iBooks Author app which, in theory at least, moves us more toward construction than consumption. I know, I know…pretty much anything we construct with it becomes a part of Apple’s domain, and that part of it contradicts, I think, the best part of writing and sharing on the Web. Again, I may not have poked around in it long enough to know, but it doesn’t look like “authoring” via the app is collaborative, social, linkable…all the good stuff that at the end of the day fuels the learning that I, at least, do here online.

iBooks Author made me think immediately of a snip in an op-ed piece by Stanley Fish in the New York Times last week, a piece that anyone interested in the changing nature of authorship would do well to read. In it, he cites extensively a new-ish book by Kathleen Fitzpatrick titled Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy.  These two paragraphs get to the salient ideas around the new tension to authorship on the Web:

The effect of these technologies is to transform a hitherto linear experience — a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he controls — into a multi-directional experience in which voices (and images) enter, interact and proliferate in ways that decenter the authority of the author who becomes just another participant. Again Fitzpatrick: “we need to think less about completed products and more about text in process; less about individual authorship and more about collaboration; less about originality and more about remix; less about ownership and more about sharing.”

 

“Text in process” is a bit of an oxymoron: for if the process is not occurring with an eye toward the emergence of a finished artifact but with an eye toward its own elaboration and complication — more links, more voices, more commentary — the notion of “text” loses its coherence; there is no longer any text to point to because it “exists” only in a state of perpetual alteration: “Digital text is, above all, malleable … there is little sense in attempting to replicate the permanence of print [itself an illusion, according to the digital vision] in a medium whose chief value is change.” (Fitzpatrick)

More about “text in process,” more about “collaboration,” more about “remix,” more about “sharing.” Forget for a moment the question of whether we are helping our students author in these contexts. (Hint: we’re not.) Are we seeing ourselves as authors in these ways? As I write this, do I see it as a “text in process?” Do I expect collaboration and remix? Do I understand the value of sharing and how to share it most effectively?

Admittedly, none of this is one or the other. I write and publish books and articles for journals who don’t embrace these shifts. Those are texts in finished form, little remix or collaboration possible. I’ve convinced myself at this moment that there is still worth in that, to attempt to disseminate ideas around the value and potential of an online, connected, networked education to those who trust those more traditional forms, even in a world which pulls me to just share and give it all away. (Oh, the irony!) But there is no doubt that I learn less from that process than the one I’m engaged in here and elsewhere. From the op-ed:

Nor is there any sense in holding on to the concept of “author,” for as Fitzpatrick observes, “all of the texts published in a network environment will become multi-author by virtue of their interpenetration with the writings of others.” Fitzpatrick insists that there will still be a place for individual authors, but with a difference: the collective, she says, should not be understood as “the elimination of individual, but rather as … a fertile community composed of multiple intelligences, each of which is always working in relationship with others.”

Notably, Fish plans to tear most of this apart in an upcoming post. But I think there is quite a bit worth defending in this vision. Publication is no longer an end point as much as it is a mid point, and to me, that’s a feature, not a bug. The interactions of other passionate readers on either side of the thesis happening in transparent, remixable ways adds another layer of learning to the reading and writing process that up until a short decade ago was really tough to make happen.

Given that shifted definition of “authorship,” I think I’ll take that over the Apple version. Not to say that iAuthoring won’t have some positive impact on the learning interaction as more new ideas are shared, but that doesn’t feel much different from the way we’ve been doing things in school for the past 125 years.

Let the remixing begin… ;0)

 

About the author
Will Richardson is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and an internationally-respected author, speaker and blogger whose focus is helping educators realize the potential of Web 2.0 technologies in their own personal and professional practice and in their classrooms. Will writes the blog Weblogg-ed and you can follow him on Twitter at @willrich45. Read more about Will here.