What Are Apple’s Educational Goals for the iPad?

Q: I heard Apple has some huge plans to revolutionize education and the world of textbooks. What did they do, and what are the implications?

For many, print textbooks are a vital and unchanging part of education. Writers and editors craft the books under the direction of a publisher. Teachers (or states) pick from the top titles on the market to be used in their classrooms. College students buy from their university bookstore, lug large volumes around in backpacks, and later score a few bucks by selling them back.

If Apple gets its way, however, this whole world will be completely disrupted.

A couple of weeks ago, Apple made a major educational announcement in an event at the Guggenheim in New York. The news is actually two different but closely-related developments: a revamped version of iBooks and a new self-authoring platform.

First, iBooks Textbooks for iPad is being billed by Apple as “the next chapter in learning.” These new interactive textbooks go far beyond what can be produced on a printed page, including 3D objects that can be manipulated, interactive images, and galleries. The digital textbooks also help students remember what they’re reading by offering intuitive highlighting and note taking functionality. It’s also easy to create study flashcards from those notes.

In addition to their content, Apple’s new textbooks for iPad will significantly lower the cost per title. Current offerings in the iBookstore do not exceed $15, and Apple has suggested that this will continue to be the cap. When compared with a $90-$150 printed textbook, the choice might seem simple.

iBooks Author, the other part of Apple’s educational announcement, is a new self-publishing platform that allows anyone to create their own interactive textbook for free. It offers rich multimedia features, easy to use templates, and allows authors to customize with a few clicks.

Despite all these benefits, however, there are plenty of negatives in Apple’s attempt at educational revolution. The initial investment is still huge, as the iPad costs not less than $499. (Although Apple typically will offer bulk educational discounts.) No matter how flashy and interactive the textbooks may be, it does not solve the major problem that many students, school districts and colleges will not be able to handle this major start-up cost.

Another point of concern arises with a close inspection of the End User License Agreement for iBooks Author. According to the terms, textbooks sold through the iBookstore cannot be sold anywhere else, which severely restricts both their distribution and the rights of the authors. Blogger Dan Wineman compared it to Microsoft saying what you can and can’t do with documents you wrote in Word. Having textbooks available only through one channel could be damaging, and it might not even be legal. It also completely eliminates the used book market.

We might expect academics, librarians and educators to object to this major move by a huge corporation, but the harshest criticisms I’ve seen thus far have come from tech reporters at business websites such as Business Insider. They cite many of the aforementioned disadvantages: the huge initial cost, the closed system, the antitrust concerns, and also issues of storage. (The current Apple textbooks take up about 2GB of space out of a total of 16GB for a low-end iPad. Just by taking a few classes, students would completely fill up their device.)

One final point to make about this educational revolution is the impact it might have on teachers and educators themselves. The new platform enables them to write and publish directly without having to deal with the politics and policies of major publishing houses. In addition, they can create interactive digital texts without any advanced coding or technological knowledge. On the other hand, the possible lack of editorial control in this new curriculum could be troublesome.

The idea of moving from print to digital textbooks certainly isn’t going away. The major question right now is whether Apple’s exciting but closed model will be able to take hold. It will be interesting to see how their educational goals evolve over the next couple of years.

andrew walshAndrew Walsh is the owner and editor of Social Web Q and A. He is a freelance writer, academic librarian and web entrepreneur. Check out his book Savvy for the Social Web.


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  1. Technology is taking education to the next level iPad leading with its own innovations. The virtual class rooms with iPads and other gadgets, data delivered from cloud servers on a subscription basis could be a reality soon.

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      George, you’re definitely right. There are some radically different models developing that could really shake things up in the classroom.

  2. With education in the U.S being a total mess iPads just may be part of a solution. When you look at the cost of text books and investing in text books not taking place especially in the areas that they are needed most then possibly investing in ipads could be the answer..

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      Hi Mike,
      I agree that there are some larger institutional problems with education that defy a simple explanation. One positive of the iBooks Author platform is that teachers can band together to create their own texts in areas that aren’t being covered well.

  3. Apple ipad will help the students in their studies. But on the other hand it will be a resistance in their studies…..

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      That’s a good point. Despite their benefits, who in their right mind would give schoolchildren a device that enables them to play Angry Birds in class?

  4. Young-Eun Park says:

    I can see how ipads can help with educational goals of students, but unfortunately I think this might be a privilege that will only be available in specific school districts and schools. At my school a lot of our students (who come from refugee backgrounds) have a dificult time learning how to use a computer other than the basic functions. They have an extremely difficult time typing or sometimes learning the skills to take a test online because of their backgrounds, in which computers or electronic devices were not available to them until their immigration to the US (i.e. we have several state tests that students take online, and though the makers state the approximate time should be around 30 minutes or so, it takes over an hour and a half to teach the students how to even click choices and submit). Of course, an issue like this is very specialized and not applicable to all schools, but it just becomes a matter of equality in education at that point.

    Another issue I’d have with the ipad (especially the textbooks) is the durability of it. Although it may only cost 15 dollars, ipads cost a good 500~ and as a technology, how many years is the ipad intending to last? Textbooks, while costing 90 – over 100 dollars, can last for years, even decades, if they had to (though hopefully not). They can withstand the wear and tear of being carried with books, backpacks, the constant sharing among students, and the continual travel they have to endure from home to school and back, potentially hundreds of times a month.

    Lastly, I think teachers are doing a fantastic job these days incorporating technology with more traditional teaching methods. For instance, after reading about atoms in a traditional textbook, a teacher might have interactive sets of 3D blocks of atoms and dowels for a chemistry class, where students themselves can manipulate the structures of the atoms instead of simply looking at a “3D” model on an ipad screen. Staring at screen of “3D” or “interactive” models on a computer screen would distract from the learning goals of students, when (at least at my school) teachers are constantly using manipulatives, videos, and other technologies to richly supplement their students’ learning.

    On the other hand, I do think that ipads come at a small advantage to classrooms where applicable, and even at my school. Having a classroom set to share among the school might be helpful, since our current “classroom set” of portable laptops that we share among our classrooms are rather cheap and dysfunctional. Additionally, having an ipad would be able to teach our students better 21st century technology skills and give them a chance to integrate technology in a more hands-on manner in the classroom, for possible use in the future. Also, in other schools that are not like mine, it would be useful for students, since they would be more tech-savvy and be able to take full advantage of all that the ipad has to offer.

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      Young-Eun, thanks for taking the time to post such a great comment! Cost and the fragile nature of iPads are important issues. Apple does supposedly offer institutional discounts for schools, but I don’t know the details and wonder how much of a deal they are willing to cut.

      That’s also very true that teachers are already doing a great job in incorporating other technologies and different ways to make their lessons interactive, even when teaching from a print book. And as demonstrated in your 3D atom block example, the interactivity is often most effective when it comes off the screen entirely. This is a point Apple would most likely prefer to gloss over.

      • Young-Eun Park says:

        Yes, especially for a school like mine, where resources are HIGHLY limited, the issue is not even about getting ipads, but more pressing classroom issues like enough space for students, enough food for kids, and scrounging around for the simplest resources like whiteboard markers and even faculty and staff taking sick days (because of budget cuts this year teachers are encouraged NOT to take sick days because instead of the coverage coming from district funds, it is now coming from the school’s own funds). Of course, this is not an issue that is universal throughout all school districts, but I’m sure in many, many school districts similar, if not worse (i.e. some districts in California) problems are popping up all over the place. I do commend what Apple is trying to do in terms of getting more technology in the classroom because they can be a fantastic and useful tool in the classroom (and I truly do mean that–they can do great and amazing things), but I wish Apple would update my two 1997 Apple computers in my classroom first instead of giving me an ipad 😛

        • Andrew Walsh says:

          That definitely is an important issue. When educational resources move to digital form, the hardware naturally becomes outdated every couple of years. It’s not just one initial investment a school has to make, but rather an ongoing one. But on the other hand, aging print textbooks have been a big problem for decades.


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