Apple Launches E-Textbook Initiative

By Jason Tomassini — January 19, 2012 4 min read
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In a much-hyped announcement and demonstration in New York City today, Apple unveiled its new plans to enter the e-textbook market, paying particular attention to the needs of K-12 education.

The company is launching a new textbook section of its iBooks application, and a new application that allows individuals to create and publish their own textbooks. It has also revamped iTunes U, an online content repository for higher education, to allow teachers to create entire courses online and be more useful to the K-12 world.

To supply the textbooks, which can be purchased through the iBooks store on an iPad (and, it seems, iPad only, but more on that later), Apple has partnered with major textbook publishers Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as children’s book publisher DK Publishing.

The announcement signals Apple’s long-standing intent to change textbooks (outlined by Steve Jobs before his death), mirroring its efforts to control the distribution and enhance the experience of listening to music as is done with iTunes. It’s also the largest-scale effort offering e-textbooks, with the three biggest education publishers, to date.

Even so, it’s worth noting that the announcement did fall short of speculation that Apple would bypass the publishing industry altogether by simply publishing its own textbooks.

Some important details about the announcement, followed by some remaining questions:

  • Calling it iBooks 2, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, unveiled new textbooks that would be available on the iPad. They resemble some of the more advanced e-textbooks already on the market.
  • Using the tapping, pinching, and swiping methods familiar to most Apple users, textbook readers can zoom in on diagrams, highlight text for note-taking and browse photo galleries. Those notes students’ take? The software will transform them into electronic notecards for later use. There are interactive Q&As at the end of each section and students can access any page using sidebar browsers.
  • An Apple press release notes: “iBooks textbooks can be kept up to date, don’t weigh down a backpack and never have to be returned.”
  • So how do you get these textbooks? One option is to purchase them through iBooks store. As of right now, all are offered for $14.99 or less and the aforementioned publishers provide many.
  • The other way is to make one yourself. Perhaps the “most new” part of Apple’s announcement is iBooks Author, which allows teachers to create their own textbooks using an iMac. In an application reminiscent of design software like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator (or Apple’s own GarageBand), iPad users can pull media--text, video, 3-D models, photos, even slides from Keynote--onto a blank page to build a lesson. There is also a customized glossary tool. And there are tools to create interactive elements like Q&As and responsive media. And if you’re a web developer, you can create widgets using HTML and JavaScript.
  • Once the book is in place, users can publish it to iBooks immediately.
  • The third part of the announcement surrounded a revamped iTunes U, the directory for educational content for higher education. In a style that may make industry-leader Blackboard nervous, teachers can create their own courses online and distribute them to students. Once primarily intended for college classrooms, Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, said iTunes U is now expanding to the K-12 market.
  • With the exception of having to actually purchase textbooks, all of the applications and software unveiled Thursday are free at the moment.

Nothing said today suggests any of these new products will be available on non-Apple devices. While the financial breakdown is still unknown, it’s similar to the agreement Apple made with music publishers around iTunes, except with the authorship option. This, of course, leaves districts with an Apple or no-Apple decision, which is good for Apple but problematic for cash-strapped districts, or those with a non-Apple technological infrastructure in place.

While the announcement may have been more extensive than those still underwhelmed by Apple’s iPhone 4S (and not iPhone 5) unveiling, it still leaves many questions. Will future iterations of the e-textbooks incorporate the social interaction and real-time classroom management tools seen in other learning management software? How much professional training will be required for teachers to be able to create their own e-textbooks, or will most authorship come from publishers and existing mobile app developers? Does this change the role of teachers at all, or will they simply be lecturing in front of students holding iPads?

It’s also worth comparing the announcement to what was hinted at by Steve Jobs in his biography by Walter Isaacson. The plans seem to only partially accomplish what he outlined before his death. An excerpt, (via e-Literate):

In fact Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. ‘The iPad would solve that,’ he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. ‘The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,’ he said. ‘But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.’

Photo: Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, discusses iBooks 2 for iPad on Jan. 19 in New York City. IBooks 2 will be able to display books with videos and other interactive features. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.