Apple's iBooks Update, New Apps Power Textbook Reinvention

At its New York event, Apple's Phil Schiller just revealed that the tech giant has big plans to reinvent the educational textbook market and the technology that underpins their use in lessons.

Phil Schiller just gave teachers a shiny new Apple.

As we'd suspected, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing has revealed that the company is planning to use the iPad--already a firm favorite in many educational establishments--as a vehicle for completely overhauling how schools and students use textbooks to enhance lessons. It starts with an overhaul of the iBooks e-bookstore that enables all sorts of dramatic interactivity with rich-media e-textbooks, and is enhanced with a powerful tool to let authors create the texts themselves.

Schiller began the presentation by talking about how U.S. education isn't necessarily among the top-ranked in developed nations, then quickly moved onto the problems with existing school textbooks. In his mind, though, they contain great content, the books are cumbersome, get worn, have old student notes dotted in them, aren't updated frequently and don't last. Apple has the iPad which is lighter, more interactive and allows for real-time information updates--a perfect recipe.

To power the new push, Apple's releasing iBooks 2, which brings with it a host of interactivity options for supported e-books--in this case, textbooks. The books have rich media, gesture controls, and all the bells and whistles in terms of video, embedded pop quizzes, and colorful moving diagrams that a regular old paper textbook simply can't have. There are a few additional extras aimed at boosting study too: Just as students highlight paper books and write notes, they can highlight e-texts and add personal aide-memoires--Apple's system even takes all of these and automatically turns them into flash cards for revision.

Without content, however clever this is, iBooks wouldn't be powerful--and to counter reluctance and industry inertia in the current textbook publishing business, Apple's also released iBooks Author. This is a Mac application that lets writers put together exactly this sort of rich-media textbook. The interface is designed to be easy to use, with WYSIWYG elements and simple drag-and-drop functionality, so it's potentially perfect for educators and even students to use too. As part of the powerful featureset Apple demonstrated the interactive glossary feature--enhancing a vital part of most textbooks that usually ends up being boring to use.

To prove that it's serious about breaking the textbook paradigm, Apple's releasing the Author app for free.

But so as not to alienate long-established educational publishers however, Apple also has a number of big names signed up--including Perason, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK Publishing--to supply professional content of their own. In a move that parents will likely welcome, Apple's pegging the top price of these books sold through its new Textbooks category in the iBookstore at $14.99.

Having dealt with school-based education, Apple also chose to tackle higher education at the same time. It's releasing a new iTunes U app--similar to iBooks, but leveraging the "700 million downloads" Apple's Eddie Cue (recently labeled as Apple's "deal maker") said have happened, and adding in features that suit university education. This includes tools for lecturers to design a class or a whole syllabus, with interactive office hours timing, and a shared "room" where teachers can post messages to classes or dole out assignments. The app has integration with the new iBooks app, so there're all the extras like enhanced note-taking. 

Over 100 courses are said to have been created by a long list of universities around the world, and it too is a free app. To add extra power, K-12 schools can also sign up to use the enhanced powers of the app to boost older students' learning.

We knew education was a subject close to Steve Jobs's heart, and though he once argued that what's wrong with education (in the U.S.) "cannot be fixed with technology" it seems like Apple's tech may be poised to enable a paradigm change anyway, because where Apple treads, other firms will follow. However, there remains the question of how accessible iPad tech is to students--particularly in lower-income families or schools with stretched budgets, and skeptics will question if schools really will leap to embrace the new thinking, as it's a radical departure from the norm, and what Apple's seemingly enabling is for educators to actually work on more things to boost their lessons. 

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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