Apple’s textbook play

image courtesy of Apple Inc.

With iBooks Textbooks for iPad, Apple is aiming to revolutionize yet another space: school textbooks. True, they’re not the first to introduce digital versions of textbooks, but one of Apple’s strengths has always been to recognize an area of growth, study the space, put connectings in place and then go in from a stronger position. It’s what they did with the iPod. It’s what they did with the iTunes store. It’s what they did with the iPad itself.

Having made licensing deals with some of the largest textbook publishers, Apple’s e-text play is already off to a great start, and the promise to limit cost of textbooks to $14.99 or less is even better for those used to paying far more for books that staledate quickly. Sounds good, right?

The chorus on Twitter in the aftermath of the press conference has been largely positive – after all, this is a big step towards the digital schools for which we’ve been yearning for years, if not decades.  What fewer people are talking is: who pays?

People that are immersed in the world of technology often lose sight of the fact that not everyone else is – the people we tend to associate with are also tech fans, and keep up to date with all of the most recent gadgets. What we tend to forget or, indeed, never even recognize, is that there are many people out there that don’t surround ourselves with the newest and best. And, in fact, there are great swaths of people who can’t even afford to play the game at all.

I was dancing around the issue on Twitter during the announcements, but Justin Ellis (@JustinNXT) came right out and said it:

Apple, Imma let you finish, but how are you going to put those iBooks in the hands of poor kids in cash strapped schools?

The vision of a digital classroom is one worth looking forward to: students can always have the most up-to-date text, and work with interactive rather than flat materials. They’ll also learn to collaborate in new and innovative ways, and learn in a way that better reflects the way they’ll be living and working in the real world. And the digital classroom has had its’ success stories. While I was at butterscotch, we had the opportunity to go see the digital classroom in action in two schools in New Brunswick, classrooms aided in part by Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program.

So, digital classrooms can work? Check. Does Apple have the infrastructure and licensing agreements to make digital textbooks work? Most likely. Are the textbook prices right? Most certainly. But what about the iPads themselves?

No one could ever accuse Apple of lacking business savvy when it comes to helping convert previously-analogue spaces into digital ones. They know that opening up these new areas for digital information to flow also opens up a new market for hardware to play them on. Digital music and movies make people want an iPod or an iPad. Same goes for digital books and downloadable games. But the big thing about all of these is that they’re optional. People don’t need to download Angry Birds or the latest Nicki Minaj album – they do it because they want to, and (presumably) because they have enough money to do so.

When it comes to education, the equation is changed somewhat. If you don’t have the textbook that’s been assigned, you may well fall behind the rest of the class. Worst case, you might even fail because of it.

With the new version of iBooks (known as iBooks 2), these new texts, while cheap compared to the old paper copies, appear to be tied to the iPad. That’s to be expected. But seeing this vision through to the end, the implications are a bit troublesome: no iPad, no textbook, diminished ability to learn.

For many families, this may already be a non-issue, as the kids may already have an iPad of their very own. But I’d argue that there are many more families where there may be a single iPad in the house, and even more where the iPad is completely absent because of its $499 entry point.

Schools have always had a disparity between students that come from a comfortable background and those who come from families of much more limited means. And, it’s important to note, it’s not always immediately apparent which children are which.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that there are entire schools where students come from families where every penny is watched to make sure that there’s a roof over the head and as much food on the table as possible.

So while the vision of digital textbooks across the board is certainly one to aspire to, it’s worth asking how we get there without exacerbating extant social stratification. (I was going to say “creating social stratification” but it’s clear to me, anyhow, that it’s already there.) Will the iPad-toting students look down on the students still carting around books? And what will happen to the book-toting students when digital finally becomes prevalent and publishers stop printing hard copies? And what happens in families with a single iPad and more than one child in school? All of these problems can get sticky.

Is this Apple’s fault? Of course not. It’s coming in with their own vision of the future of learning, and it’s one that makes use of their own tools. And in the free market, a company doesn’t owe anybody special treatment. However, there are a few things Apple could do to earn the goodwill necessary to help realize its vision of an iPad in every backpack:

First, it would be really nice to see a lower-priced, scaled-back version of the iPad aimed solely at students…let’s call it the “ePad”. Other companies have long been experts at taking tech components that are no longer on the cutting edge and turning them into value-oriented products…products that come with the full expectation of lower performance. So create the ePad with specs closer to competitors like the Kindle Fire, the Kobo Vox or the Barnes and Noble Nook. So long as it’s positioned as an educational version, people will forgive the fact that the performance is a bit lacklustre compared to the full-on iPad. (Just make sure it has enough chug to play Angry Birds, please.)

But that doesn’t address the fact that some students just won’t be able to afford the hardware at all, discounted or not. So secondly, Apple could partner with the schools themselves, to put refurbs into the classroom, and possibly directly into the hands of needy students (either on loan or as a grant). Or work with third-party organizations to do so. For example, my long-time colleague and Lab Rats co-host Andy Walker started an organization called Little Geeks dedicated to refurbishing PCs and putting them directly into the hands of children who would otherwise be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Apple could certainly play a part in helping organizations like this work with tablets, too.

It would also be nice if Apple could find a way to allow these inexpensive titles to be usable on other non-Apple devices. (I realize that this is a long-shot, not least of which because most of these titles will have been designed with the specific hardware capabilities of the iPad in mind, and porting them to work the same way on a netbook may just not be in the cards.)

And not least of all, Apple needs to be prepared for the influx of cracked iPad screens showing up at the Genius Bar, once iPads become regular classroom fare. Some have noted that textbooks get beaten up and damaged fairly quickly. Now speculate for a second as to how an iPad would do in the same backpack, even WITH a protective sleeve. It’s kind of a scary thought, especially for those who had to make huge sacrifices just to buy the iPad in the first place. I’m not sure what the answer is here – maybe free three year AppleCare for anyone presenting valid student ID when making the purchase?

Microsoft has already done a good job with its Partners in Learning program, proving that if you give students the chance to integrate technology into the learning process, they can excel in ways more suited to the modern world. But they did this by working with the pilot schools to make it happen.

Apple has a chance to influence the future of education too – their iPad is already a known commodity, even to those who don’t yet own one. In the world of consumer consumption like music and movies, sheer market force can win the day.  But when you have to convince school boards to go down a route that will potentially disenfranchise much of the student population, introducing the software infrastructure is only the first step.


About globalhermit

I am a technology journalist and video creator based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This entry was posted in Opinion, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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