What Today’s Apple Education Event Means to the Blind

Today, Apple had an education event. It may not have received as much excitement and coverage as their last iPhone event, but I believe it has profound implications. The event covered three new apps which will greatly increase Apple’s position in the educational institutions. iBooks has a new version which features new beautiful interactive textbooks. iBooks Author for the Mac allows easy authoring and publishing of these books. iTunes U brings a full set of features for the creation and instruction of classes. These three things make the iPad a new indispensable educational tool.

Apple has always had education in its DNA, as they said at today’s event. Anyone around my age remembers some Apples sitting in a cold computer room. I got an Apple II/e, and I remember my school had an Apple II/+. I then transferred to an elementary school, but I don’t remember anything about computers there. After that I went to a private school for two years and I remember they had a bunch of Apple II/c’s but also PC’s. I used to amaze sighted students by going into the BASIC built into the Apple’s ROM and writing little programs without any kind of speech or other feedback. The programs worked and I loved working with Apples.

By the time I got to high school PC’s had taken over. I felt kind of sad not to see Apples, save for a lone sad Apple sitting in a disused corner. When rumors surfaced of today’s education announcement I began to wonder what Apple had in mind to reclaim its deserved status. Now I feel amazed looking back. I think Apple has done it again.

Textbooks suck! I know they stressed their bulk and weight at today’s event. Double that and you will know what a blind kid has to go through. A textbook does not take one bulky volume, it takes thirty. It really sucked when the class covered pages spanning two volumes. While throwing things out to prepare for moving, I chanced to find an old portable printer. I’d lug that thing around with a big heavy laptop and a backpack of braille books every day. The printer still feels unwieldy and heavy as an adult and so do big braille books. I can only Imagine the excitement felt by today’s sighted students at the prospect of doing work on an iPad. Now double that and you will know what blind kids must feel.

Print and braille have a static format, written in stone so to speak. They cannot change. They get damaged. They do not allow for easy indexing and searching. Again, try using a traditional index across a 30-volume braille set. Too bad if they haven’t published the part you need.

Electronic books solve all these problems. They also take advantage of the features offered by modern hypertext systems, including linking to other parts of the book or to external media and databases. As if that couldn’t get any better, Apple has already built VoiceOver support into the format by allowing authors to supply accessibility descriptions for widgets. This gives the potential to create the most accessible learning experience the blind have ever known.

To create one of these new electronic books, one uses the free iBooks Author app, which any Mac user can get in the Mac App Store. I tried it with VoiceOver, but got confused and trapped in a text box. Others have had better luck. Reading the help files would probably help. I really hope the blind can use this tool, and that Apple will make it as accessible as possible. I want to publish my book about meditation when I finish it. I still consider the app a tremendous step for Apple, and hope publishers will make full use of it and its accessibility features. Think of all the kids this will help.

To participate in a class electronically, one now uses iTunes U. I have always felt intrigued by this category in iTunes, and now it has its own app. It allows teachers to create online classes with a syllabus, course material in the form of iBooks, and study aids thanks to the interactive features of Keynote and HTML5/Javascript. A student can then browse and sign up for classes. Once they’ve signed up, they can view the materials, make notes, and do the exercises just as they would in a traditional class. I would have loved this as a kid. I await the day I can finish my Computer Science degree with my iPad from the comfort of my living room recliner.

Today’s event shows that Apple still recognizes the importance of education. It gives me a warm feeling to imagine how these developments will benefit the everyone, especially blind students. I know firsthand that having access to technology at a young age makes all the difference. I went to St. Lucy’s Day School for the Blind. They had Apples which talked. I bought one and started programming very soon thereafter. Now that school has kids making cute videos with iPads. Apple, you’ve done it again!

Epilog: Every apple has a worm. Apple has imposed some very severe restrictions in their end user licensing agreement for iBooks Author. If you write a book using iBooks Author, you can only publish it through Apple if you make a profit. If Apple wants to truly start a revolution, they must practice what they preach about their love of open standards. Restrictions will only hamper their efforts. They will have to address this issue if they want to succeed.