Apple’s e-textbooks do not look so world-changing to educators

On Hack Education, Audrey Watters has a fairly long look at why Apple’s new textbook announcement may not be as revolutionary as expected. She was not impressed by Apple’s presentation, stating it lacked Steve Jobs’s magic touch, “the kind of thing that made both fans and skeptics say, ‘Yes, (perhaps) this changes everything.’” She points out that Apple is partnering with the three companies that already make up 90% of the textbook industry, and they have already gotten into digital textbooks (to the tune of $3 billion last year by just one of them).

One of the things that digital content makes obvious is that the current physical manifestation of a print-bound textbook is a strangely awful construct — one designed to remove students one step (at least one step) from the primary sources that inform the field they’re studying. You don’t read Darwin; you read "Introduction to Biology." You don’t read de Tocqueville; you read "American History I." Sure, textbooks offer easier-to-digest summaries of the content, geared to the particular grade level of the student. They offer diagrams and illustrations and review questions and a glossary. But textbooks are always an assembly from a variety of sources, geared towards a classroom setting where the teacher leads students through the chapters and the exercises and the examinations. Neither the teacher nor the student is expected to be an expert. You just need to know enough to pass the test.

Digitizing that model of instruction changes nothing. Adding video changes nothing. Pinch and zoom and flashcards change nothing.

As for Apple’s $14.99 per student per year model for high school textbooks, Watters points out that a lot of high schools don’t buy new textbooks every year anyway, and if you look at that $14.99 per year as replacing an only slightly more expensive book that lasted several years, it may not be such a good deal after all.

And as for giving students their own permanent e-copy of the material, what student really ever wanted to keep a copy of his high school textbooks, anyway? And even if they had, taking advantage of it is still going to require getting those students their own iPads, an expensive (and currently far from universally-achieved) proposition.

She also has a few words for the iBooks Author e-book-making app, and its much-maligned license that restricts authors from selling their books through any other outlet than Apple. Apart from being restrictive, and providing no way to mark books that she wants to give away for free with a Creative Commons license, she notes that it is ultimately unnecessary—educators are already able to build their own digital textbooks, albeit without as “slick” tools as iBooks Author.

In the end, Watters writes, Apple’s digital textbook announcement is not the kind of revolution previously expected of Apple—it’s more of the same old same old, and “a slap in the face to educators and students.”

It really sounds like Apple set out to solve the wrong problem with this announcement, focusing on high schools when the real problem, and the much faster move toward e (since college students are more able to afford tablets), is college textbooks. It will be interesting to see what kind of deal Apple can offer them. But I can certainly see Watters’s point of view here—for high schools, this is not the sort of world-changer Apple has been known for in the past.

9 Comments on Apple’s e-textbooks do not look so world-changing to educators

  1. I think that she has completely missed how this will “change everything.” Yes, Apple had to acknowledge the commercial textbook publishing industry and throw them a bone. Maybe those publishers will continue to produce awful eTextbooks alongside their awful pTextbooks, maybe not.
    The real story, IMHO, centers around the fact that teachers and their students can now easily and quickly create competitive eTextbooks that are both free to make and free to acquire. It is now possible to dis-intermediate the textbook publishers that educators have long criticized.
    The ball is now in our court. Can we move away from cursing the textbook darkness and light a candle or two? Can we do better than the folks that we’ve been criticizing?
    I discuss this opportunity in the higher education context here: http://frank-lowney.blogspot.com/2012/01/ibooks-author-and-coming-etextbook.html

  2. Frank, teachers don’t get to choose textbooks in the high school environment. so the ability for teachers and students to create competing textbooks seems like less of a factor. Textbooks have to be vetted by both the state and the district before they are used in public school classrooms.

    Much of what Apple has done makes a lot of sense in the college environment, but very little of it makes sense in the high school environment.

  3. @ Sherri What you describe is the process for approving textbooks for statewide purchase. That process does not preclude the submission of free eTextbooks written by individual teachers or groups of teachers, whether on their own or subsidized (release time) by their school systems. Indeed, multiple textbooks for grade levels and subject areas can be approved.
    Or are you saying that K-12 teachers don’t know enough about the state standards and the subjects being taught to be able to write a competitive textbook, one that just happens to be free?

  4. States don’t purchase textbooks, states set standards and recommend curricula and textbooks that meet those standards. Districts choose curricula and textbooks, and will sometimes (in some states) pick a different textbook or curricula than one on the state list. A teacher can add supplementary material to the textbook or curricula, but it still has to be approved by the district.

    High school teachers also typically teach 5-6 classes a day, with no incentives/payoffs/support for producing textbooks. They aren’t currently producing high school textbooks, and I don’t think it’s because of the lack of a good authoring tool.

    Apple has addressed one small part of the process for making competitive textbooks, and not even the most difficult part in the high school environment.

  5. One thing is clear. The current price for even the least expensive iPad is too much for most high school students, particularly when theft and breakage factors are brought into play. Apple needs a school-backpack-ready iPad for about $250-300 if it wants to enter that market. And even that price range is iffy.

    And while concern about the weight of books carried to and from school by high school students is justified, that’s probably not the best way to introduce the programs they’re developing. There’s huge economy of scale for high school textbook publishers. Get on the approved list in a few large states and their textbook sales would make any other book a bestseller. Sales like that tilt the market toward print, which gets cheaper in high volumes. Where digital does best is for smaller sales volumes, the kind you get when individual college professors select their own lists for specialized college courses. That’s where Apple’s iTunes ecosystem will work best. Apple needs to focus on colleges not K-12.

    And for colleges, iBooks Author needs to support features such as footnotes/endnotes and sidebar text.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Eugenics and Other Evils (used in college classrooms)

  6. I would suggest that the affordability of the iPad is really academic (no pun intended … ).

    The key issue is content, and though I am an iPad user and evangeliser, I guess, it is clear to me that until substantial content arrives that allows a student to carry a significant portion of their textbooks to school on that iPad, it is a waste of money other than a cool gadget. Simple textbooks. No need for eNote taking or any of that. Just straight forward eTextbooks.

  7. As I said, states approve K-12 textbooks for purchase. As Sherri said, school districts make purchase decisions using that list, We agree with the relevant Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textbook) which says:
    “In most U.S. K-12 public schools, a local school board votes on which textbooks to purchase from a selection of books that have been approved by the state Department of Education.”
    There is no disagreement there.

  8. In the case of pTextbooks, California and Texas (they purchase centrally) have exercised disproportionate influence on what publishers offer to all states. The economics of paper publishing are significant here. People with a political agenda often try to influence textbook approval in these and other pivotal states especially in the areas of history and science. This is why these pTextbooks are so horrible.
    Back to Wikipedia, we read, “Teachers are usually not required to use textbooks, however, and many prefer to use other materials instead.”
    I can corroborate this assertion based on my personal experience as a High School Social Studies teacher. Conscientious teachers go well beyond the adopted textbooks bringing far more to their students that what someone in NYC deems politic.
    Yes, I taught five classes a day and sponsored various clubs and activities after school. Right, there’s not much economic incentive there. Crazy teachers.
    So, let’s take a dispassionate look at the economics involved. Texas spent $758 million on K-12 textbooks in 2010 for 4,383,871 students. That’s $172.90 per student. Keep in mind that Texas is at or near the bottom (#49 in verbal SAT, #46 in math SAT, more at: http://www.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/wwstand/wws0512ed/).
    I can’t speak for Apple but I know (also from personal experience but this in higher ed) that they offer discounts for volume purchases. If teachers in Texas (or any other state) created the textbooks, maybe with a little released time (teach one fewer class), such that the cost was at or near zero, you’d amortize the cost an iPad in less than the five years which happens to be the average lifespan for pTextbooks.
    Net savings, better, more timely textbooks and teachers using textbooks that are better tuned to their situations — looks like a good deal to me.

  9. I don’t know when you taught high school, but K-12 education has become much more standardized in the last few years. There’s much less room for a teacher to deviate from the approved curriculum, especially with all the state mandated testing. Even in AP classes, there are College Board approved curricula. It’s unfortunate, but teachers have less freedom to actually teach than they used to. K-5 is worse than high school, where it’s not unusual for a curriculum to be totally scripted, telling a teacher exactly what to say.

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