Apple’s Textbook Strategy

Yesterday’s Apple announcement was predicted to focus on textbooks, and it didn’t disappoint. Apparently Apple executives see a new market in textbooks, one which they can revolutionize threefold. If done correctly, digital textbooks could be very profitable for Apple, save a struggling publishing industry, and give children a better education than traditional textbooks can provide.

So let’s review what they came up with. First, iBooks 2.0 has been reworked on the iPad to display rich textbooks filled with handy galleries, videos, and interactive quizzes. Apple has partnered with several major publishers (Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK) to provide high school texts for $14.99. The E.O. Wilson Foundation is also releasing their new book Life on Earth for free, which I can’t wait to try. There’s a long way to go, but it looks like publishers are happy with Apple’s new model for now. iBooks is available for free on the App Store. Keep in mind that the new textbooks will only run on the iPad, not the iPhone or iPod touch’s smaller screen.

Second, Apple has released a promising tool called iBooks Author to design these fancy new books. It’s basically a melding of Keynote and Pages from its iWork suite, and allows just about anyone to compile their own rich textbook. Surprisingly, this is also offered for free on the Mac App Store. This comes with a few restrictions, since the .ibooks file you create with iBooks Author can only be sold through Apple. Realistically, there aren’t any other ebook readers that can play such complex files, but it’s still an onerous condition. You can, however, give free copies away to anyone without dealing with Apple.

Third, Apple released an iTunes U app for both teachers and students. iTunes U has gained quite a following over the years, offering free courses from universities worldwide. As of yesterday, K-12 schools can also use iTunes U to post courses or materials online. The new app lets teachers post and monitor progress through the material, while students can read, watch videos, or listen to audio. I’m trying out a British Ecosystems course, and so far I’m impressed. I’ve watched BBC videos, studied book chapters in iBooks, and followed lectures from prominent ecologists around the world. I’d say it’s leagues better than the online courses I took in college, and I’m excited to see how the service develops. Unlike the iBooks texts, iTunes U is available free for any iDevice.

So what does all this new stuff mean for education? Only time will tell. I applaud Apple for trying to help America’s struggling schoolchildren, but I’m concerned that schools will have a tough time getting pricy iPads for everyone. Like every new technology, it faces the “chicken and the egg” problem. If schools don’t purchase enough iPads and use the new apps, publishers won’t want to design digital textbooks. And if there aren’t enough digital texts, why would schools adopt the new program? I think the textbook market, especially at the college level, is ripe for disruption, and the cost savings over 4 years would be immense. If I had the chance to purchase one $500 iPad at the beginning of college and several $15 books each year, I’d spend significantly less money than if I bought paper books, new or used.

The K-12 sphere is harder, since schools will need to purchase iPads for students and likely recycle them year after year. This requires support and retooling of the current textbook purchasing model. But if Apple were to offer a cheaper iPad, either through an education discount or by selling a discounted iPad 2 after introducing the iPad 3, schools would certainly have an easier time raising the funds. Of course, there’s still the issue that only iPads can run the new books. Why not, at the very least, make iBooks for Mac?

All in all, Apple seems to be trying to revolutionize yet another stale industry, and I’ve learned not to doubt their prescience in these matters. Digital textbooks through iBooks may well become the standard, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can help children as much as Apple claims. iPads are insanely popular amount kids, and I would have killed to study with one as a child. One thing’s for sure – it will always be the teacher, not a textbook, who unlocks a student’s true potential. But better books could definitely help.

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