Apple has demonstrated again and again its ability to create and reinvent content marketplaces by designing irresistible devices and platforms—will educational content be its next conquest?
When I was in college 10 years ago, my biology textbook was a $300, four-pound monstrosity with a shiny CD-ROM shrink-wrapped to the front. To my knowledge no one ever took advantage of the INTERACTIVE!! MULTIMEDIA!!! extras.
Apple's much-hyped education announcement on today, updating iBooks to enable full-featured interactivity for textbooks on the iPad, creating a Textbooks section on the iBookstore, new courseware tools for teachers on iTunes U, and a rich, free iBook Author app for anyone who wants to create their own texts, set the education-technology community humming at the hashtag #appleed.
An early take is that even the most INTERACTIVE! MULTIMEDIA!! textbook is solving the wrong problem, which is access to peers, educators, and active learning opportunities for students around the world, not a dearth of mitosis animations.
"Apple is making the problem fit the solution," said Steve Hargadon, creator of Classroom 2.0, an online community for educators, and host of the "The Future of Education" interview series. "That's not disruptive—it's myopic."
"'Textbook' is both a misnomer and a dated concept," agreed Tom Vander Ark, partner in Learn Capital and author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World. "In the post-textbook world, content mashups on social platforms like Edmodo will be more prevalent and will be accompanied by adaptive content sequences driven by smart engines. This feels like a jog sideways rather than a step forward." Indeed, the apps, at least in this version, focus on simple, old-fashioned learning features like note-taking, flash cards, and multiple-choice quizzes, rather than the game mechanics and adaptive, mass-customized learning made familiar by organizations like Khan Academy and companies like Knewton.
While the announcement and accompanying video focused on the design bells and whistles, what may be more interesting is the economics of the announcement. Apple is partnering with major textbook publishers like Pearson and McGraw Hill to make iPad textbooks available at a top price of $14.99—a major boon when college students spend $1,000 a year on texts.
"It's not clear if textbook costs will come down," says Eric Frank, president of Flat World Knowledge, which publishes open-licensed textbooks that are free to read online and low-cost in PDF. "Who pays that $14.99—the student or the school district? Can it get used multiple times?"
David Wiley, a professor at Brigham Young University and an originator of open licenses for educational content, is optimistic that Apple's visibility will have ripple effects on the future economics of educational content. He told me, "Apple's announcement validates the fact that extremely low-cost books can be good quality. This only creates additional opportunity for acceptance and adoption of open textbooks. While a $15 publisher textbook is great, a $0 open textbook will continue to be a better choice for many schools, states, and districts, especially given the current economic climate."
The iBook Author app gives teachers and learners—and anyone, for that matter, poets, scientists, comic book artists—the power to create their own rich media content for free, but it remains to be seen whether creators will have the power to choose open licenses or distribute their content on devices other than Apple's, which would allow for a truly disruptive peer-to-peer ecosystem of learning materials. What is certain is that the days of the four-pound printed textbook, one of the last redoubts of the dead-tree publishing industry, are numbered.