Curriculum

Apple Unveils E-Textbook Strategy for K-12

Technology company pairs with publishers
By Jason Tomassini — January 20, 2012 5 min read
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.
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Apple Inc. announced aggressive new efforts last week to move into the K-12 electronic-textbook market, though educational publishers said the biggest news from the move is how the normally disruptive company is likely to help the publishing industry rather than challenge it.

Through a partnership with three major K-12 textbook publishers—McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Apple is offering interactive textbooks through its iBooks store at $14.99 or less. The textbooks feature multimedia elements, including video, three-dimensional graphics, and photo galleries. They also allow students to highlight text to create flashcards and search within a glossary.

The publishers will give Apple a cut of the revenue; 30 percent in the case of individual consumers, and an undetermined amount when selling on a state or district level. It’s a mutually beneficial model akin to iTunes, publishers said, not a run around the publishing industry, as had been speculated and hinted at by Apple founder Steve Jobs before his death last year.

“Apple developed the software, but it’s our books and our content,” said Genevieve Shore, the chief information officer for Pearson Education, based in Upper Saddle River, N.J. Apple’s large distribution model allows those books to reach more people, Ms. Shore said, and its advanced Web development and presentation allows for a superior textbook.

At the characteristically sleek announcement last week from the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Phil Schiller, an Apple senior vice president, and other officials demonstrated a science textbook, Life on Earth, created for the iPad by the renowned scientist E.O. Wilson. It features 3-D models of a cell that can be rotated by swiping a finger. A larger photograph in the sidebar can then be expanded into full-screen mode for a closer look, a move that elicited applause from the crowd at the event.

Apple also unveiled a brand-new application called iBooks Author, which allows users to create and publish their own e-books. The tool can be used only on Macintosh computers, but books can immediately be published into the iBooks store. Using an interface similar to other Apple applications like iMovie or GarageBand, users can import media into the program and drag and drop it onto a blank page. Users can create custom glossaries and custom widgets that allow for greater interactivity.

Lastly, Apple announced it is upgrading iTunes U, its directory for educational content for higher education, to allow teachers to create entire online courses. Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services, said iTunes U is also now expanding to the K-12 market.

How Much Disruption?

In its entirety, the announcement signals Apple’s intent to further deepen its market share in K-12 education. Sales of the iPad are outpacing Mac computers in the education sector, and Apple officials said there were 1.5 million iPads in use in education, more than 1,000 one-to-one iPad computing initiatives in K-12, and 20,000 education apps in the iTunes store.

Critics still question, however, whether iPads improve learning, and there are few independent studies offering data to prove that they do.

Mr. Jobs had always taken an interest in education, and in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the technology innovator, he is quoted as speaking of a “corrupt” state textbook-approval process, the massive textbook industry, and his hope to transform it.

For textbook publishers, though, business won’t be as disrupted as Mr. Jobs may have hoped.

Ms. Shore of Pearson Education said creating content for Apple would be no different from creating any other kind of textbook content. Pearson creates the content first, then adapts it to multiple platforms, whether it’s Apple, Android, Amazon, or print.

And publishers believe that regardless of the technology (or the user-generation tools), they will still be relied on to create useful content.

“The common myth is that anybody can create quality content and curriculum,” said Lisa O’Masta, the vice president of STEM marketing—products for science, technology, engineering, and math—at New York City-based McGraw-Hill. “The reality is there’s a lot that goes into what curriculum is created.”

That leaves the accessibility issues up to the publishers, which have to provide high-quality content across multiple platforms, not companies like Apple that offer the platforms, Ms. Shore said.

Some educational technology experts agreed.

“It’s not whether the tablet or iPad is beneficial; it’s the content,” said John Bailey, a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush and now an educational technology consultant.

The bottom line, at least for the major publishers, doesn’t stand to change much either, Ms. O’Masta said. A traditional textbook that costs nearly $100 is updated every five years or so, requiring the school to buy new ones. E-textbooks can be updated at any time, and students must purchase the new versions every school year. Even with the cut going to Apple, there’s not likely to be a major difference in revenue.

Publishers wouldn’t speculate on whether they would bundle in certain devices when selling textbooks at the district level. For districtwide textbook purchases, students will be given a code to access books on their devices.

Cost Questioned

But some critics believe the cost of the devices could prevent the innovative textbooks from being used by the students who need them most. By the end of the year, for example, McGraw-Hill will produce five Apple-only textbooks. If the textbooks can be used on Apple devices only, it could require cash-strapped districts to decide on Apple or a lesser education.

“Unless the economy significantly improves and the state governments have a load of money, I’m not sure where the districts will find money for $400 devices, and textbooks,” said Osman Rashid, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Kno, an e-textbook company in Santa Clara, Calif., that focuses on higher education.

Ultimately, Mr. Rashid said, Apple’s plans will have an overall positive effect on education because they will help prove the value of interactive textbooks and learning. Plus, it will provide more competition in a crowded but important area.

“May the best product win,” he said.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Apple Unveils E-Textbook Strategy for K-12


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