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 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.