Apple Unveils Digital Textbook, E-Publishing Platform

Published January 19, 2012

In its first product announcement directly tied to education, Apple Inc. unveiled a free digital textbook and e-book platform, iBooks Author, similar to its GarageBand and iTunes software for music. It will make creating and distributing e-books much easier while allowing integration of media such as audio, video, games, and interactive quizzes. 

“We want to reinvent the textbook,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief. He noted conventional textbooks are not portable, searchable, “current,” or interactive.

Apple will offer textbooks through its online store, beginning with high school textbooks priced as low as $14.99. The firm is partnering with publishing monoliths Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, DK Publishing, and Harcourt, which serve 90 percent of the textbook market. 

College ‘Anywhere in the World’
The company is also expanding its iTunesU online university lectures, used by more than 1,000 universities, into complete online courses including syllabi, video lectures, assignments, documents, apps, and message boards. Oxford, Cambridge, Duke, and Yale universities are among those currently developing full courses through iTunesU.  

“Never before have educators been able to offer their full courses in such an innovative way, allowing anyone who’s interested in a particular topic to learn from anywhere in the world, not just the classroom,” said Eddy Cue, an Apple senior vice president. 

Apple will now allow K-12 schools and providers to offer classes through iTunesU. 

“The iTunesU piece is more directed at the student, the informal education space outside school,” said Michael Horn, executive director of education at the Innosight Institute. He noted it enables professors and students to move beyond traditional, four-year degrees into receiving specific credentials or skill certification. 

Textbooks Outdated?
Schools have already bought than 1.5 million iPads, though only approximately 6 percent of textbook sales will be digital in 2012, according to distributor MBS Direct Digital. The company predicted that number will rise to more than 50 percent by 2020. 

The announcement signals Apple intends to keep iPads a dominant education technology, Horn said.

“The whole notion of a textbook as a single-curated, flat, and sequential experience is quickly fading,” said Tom Vander Ark, director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “iBook Author is a terrific tool for building textbooks, but the whole notion of textbooks is quickly going away.” 

He pointed to a difference between tablets and computers with keyboards: People use tablets to consume, and personal computers to create. 

“Schools will have to [choose] between whether they want to use a consumption or a production device,” he said. “I want to think of it as a student producer. I want them writing 500 words a day and producing media.” 

Although the sticker price of traditional college textbooks is high, publishers often don’t bring out new editions for seven or eight years, Horn said. With iPads costing $499 and e-books easier to update, iPad textbooks may not be much cheaper, he said. 

“If more self-publishers got into the market, would you get truly cheap or free textbooks using this platform?” He asked. “That’s interesting to see, how that rolls out, and we won’t see it for a few years.”

Educationally ‘A Step Sideways’
In conjunction with iBooks Author and the iTunesU upgrade, Apple also rolled out an updated iBooks iPad app. The new products currently only work on Apple hardware. It’s a clear move to compete with Amazon’s free e-book publishing tools and push into a pre-existing e-textbook market, Horn said.

Apple’s ed-tech success will depend on whether its products create a new market in education instead of merely pitching shinier products to the current market, Horn said. 

“You create a new market, and the old comes into the new way of doing things,” he said. “That’s how you win, not by competing head-on.”

As classrooms continue integrating technology and slowly becoming more student-centered, the educational influence of Apple’s move remains to be seen.

“Apple’s media reinforce the teacher-centric approach and the traditional classroom,” Vander Ark said. “‘Don’t be afraid—this doesn’t change anything. It’s just a book on a tablet, and it doesn’t weigh very much.’ It feels more like a step sideways than a great advance.”

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is the managing editor of School Reform News