Apple Saves the Backs of Our Children

January 20th, 2012

This is an all-too-common scenario: When walking to school or from class to class, your child is lugging a huge backpack containing textbooks and other course materials. With large halls or a long distance between classes in separate buildings, your child may be struggling under that load for hours each and every day. But I’m not about to suggest the extent of the damage to one’s spinal column or back muscles. The point is that it’s a heavy load to bear, particularly for a small child.

While books are, in my experience, usually supplied free of charge in most grade schools, once a student goes to college, there’s a huge upfront expense in buying the textbooks needed for a single semester or the entire school year. Once the books are used, they may be sold off for a fraction of the money originally paid, stored in a garage or recycled. But I’m using strictly the U.S. example here.

Now when I first read about the iPad, I joined others in imagining a revolution in the making for our educational systems. Instead of having to lug all those hefty and expensive books around, all the material could be stored in digital form on Apple’s tablet.

For months, not much happened, except for reports that iPads had been deployed at a number of schools. But to enter the textbook game, Apple had to reach deals with the major textbook publishers to create interactive e-books. It also evidently required an update to Apple’s iBooks software and iTunes to complete the process.

Well, that happened this week with the release of iBooks 2, which is available for the iPad and, in fact, the iPhone, although textbooks are meant strictly for the former. There’s also an iBooks Author app for the Mac that allows anyone to create such an e-book.

The final piece of the puzzle involving cementing deals with the biggies in textbook publishing, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson. That step opened the possibilities for loads of textbooks to soon become available for iBooks 2, although only a handful of titles have been released so far.

The other part of the equation is uptake by school systems, or at the very least agreeing to accept students using their own iPads to acquire the digital versions of the textbooks they need. Perhaps, for a time, the printed and e-book versions will exist side by side, maybe as a test to see how grades might be impacted. The betting is that students will feel empowered by the interactive textbooks and score higher.

I suppose school systems could also have site licenses for these digital textbooks, and maybe the reduced cost — because of all that money saved from printing physical books — will be sufficient to even justify the purchase of iPads to hand out to students on loan or to keep.

In “reinventing” textbooks, Apple has the first mover advantage here. Sure, Amazon and Google could upgrade their e-book apps to better support similar interactive content. But they’d still have to sign contracts with the publishers in order to be able to provide those titles. Obviously neither Apple nor the three publishers under contract are going to say if the deals are exclusive. That won’t become obvious unless or until textbooks appear in other formats.

And remember that even if there’s an Amazon Kindle or Android app that supports interactive textbooks, publishers would have to provide their files in forms that are compatible. That could mean producing not just one digital version, but two or three. At the same time, don’t forget that Apple has long held a substantial presence in the world of education. It’s going to take an awful lot of work for other tech companies to convince publishers and school systems that they deserve a chance.

Meantime, I’m happy to see that education is being pushed kicking and screaming into the 21st century. My biggest concern, though, is how many cash-strapped school systems are going to be able to take the plunge. Will the price per student, including an iPad, be low enough to make it possible for school systems in lower income areas to get on board? That’s something I surely don’t know, but if the iPad and digital textbooks can make it to the inner cities and cash-starved rural districts, Apple will have created yet another revolution.

Besides, if students are using iPads in school, and they would naturally have to take them home to complete classroom assignments, how will that impact Apple’s sales of iPhones and new Macs? The legendary halo effect has already helped boost sales of Macs; Microsoft is suffering from reduced PC demand, reporting a 6% drop in sales of Windows in the last quarter. Apple’s new initiative can only increase the prospects for Macs, or maybe encourage more people to simply use iPads as personal computers.

Meantime, I think back to my son’s huffing and puffing when he got home with that stuffed backpack in tow. He didn’t suffer any physical damage, fortunately. In fact, he’s now an English teacher to Spanish-speaking students near Madrid. I wonder how long it’ll take for the iPad, iBooks 2, and those interactive textbooks to spread around the world. It sounds like a win win to me.

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4 Responses to “Apple Saves the Backs of Our Children”

  1. dfs says:

    Your comments are limited to the K-12 market (which is, of course, the biggest one ). But something should be said about the higher education market too. I see several potential advantages to Apple’s scheme. In the first place, although some professors try to limit their assignments to paperbacks, the cost of traditional college textbooks can be enormous. This is a major reason why a college degree can be so expensive. Second, from the instructor’s point of view nothing can be more frustrating than to choose a specific textbook and then be told by his university bookstore (often at the very last minute) that the book in question is out of print. Third, unlike K-12 teachers, professors are free to choose their own books, and this may well give them the ability to customize their books to fit their own personal needs. Or they can even use Apple’s new e-book authoring software to create their own (although this admittedly has the potential of creating a number of copyright headaches). Over the years, the textbook industry has not always served higher education very well, because of their occasionally astronomical prices and their sometimes inability to deliver the books where they are needed, when they are needed, and in the number they are needed. In the past, they could get away with this kind of thing because they were sitting on a comfortable monopoly. Apple just ended that.

  2. Point of order: You missed the second paragraph, which covered the higher education textbook situation. 🙂


  3. Kurt says:

    Unfortunate that, looking at the textbook reviews, there appear to be many typos and editorial errors in the math texts…

  4. dfs says:

    “Unfortunate that, looking at the textbook reviews, there appear to be many typos and editorial errors in the math texts…” If you mean typos in home-brewed textbooks using Apple’s new authoring software, typos are going to be one chronic problem, but there will be others too. There will probably be plenty more factual inaccuracies too, and perhaps also even worse mistakes, since homebrews won’t be subjected to the same quality-control processes as traditional textbooks. Some authors will create mashups of other people’s work and pass them off as their own. And, as I said in my previous comment, I bet plenty of copyright issues will crop up. On the whole, I think that the plus side of this new technology will greatly outweigh the minus side, but let’s not kid ourselves there won’t be any minus side at all. Bottom line: the costs of printing, warehousing, and distributing traditional textbooks (and many other kinds of printed materials as well) have driven their price through the roof, and sheer economic necessity is going to make e-publishing the norm over the next few decades. But I’d far rather see this done in some more orderly and centralized way, in which most if not all of the traditional quality controls could be retained, rather than creating a kind of anarchistic Wild West in which home-brew publishing runs rampant.

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