Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Educational Technology Experts Skeptical About Apple's iBooks

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.

[Image: Top: Flickr user thanker212; Thumbnail: provided by Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Jack Treml

    As a biology instructor, I've been very energized by Apple's iBook Authoring Tool. I use it in my class to provide a custom, interactive handbook for my students and I've even been creating additional books to teach concepts of biology, chemistry and physics through mythology and storytelling. My first complete book is now up on iTunes at

    It teaches the gas laws through a tale of Heracles' labors.

  • atimoshenko

    "content mashups on social platforms … will be accompanied by adaptive content sequences driven by smart engines"

    And this is how you know you've been navel-gazing for so long that you have completely lost touch with reality. If you have more than one buzzword per major idea, you are lost and visionless.

  • Karen

    While I like the idea of "cheap" textbooks, the "emitted light" from the iPad (and other such devices) has glare problems in bright light.  I have a non-color, non-light emitting eReader because of that problem.  Developing things for ONE platform is also a problem.  I currently teach online and have my students use journal articles and even book chapters available through our library.  They can read them on a screen that reflects light (by using any eReader or printing them out if that is what they prefer) or reading them on a computer or iPad. Closed architecture and incompatibility problems are annoying at best because they cause problems which can frustrate students as much as the learning process.

  • Leon Cych

    Mirroring what I said on the Guardian site:

    I love Apple products but education is what happens between your ears and not on a screen. This
    initiative is welcome but it will only ghettoize the curriculum­.
    Initiative­s like will be far more radical and game changing in
    the long run. This is merely about content. Where are the
    collaborat­ive elements built into this channel - there are none and yet
    the web is wonderfull­y collaborat­ive. Like Amazon, Apple is
    moving into publishing and curriculum or at least partnerships in that
    area. What happens if students make their own materials and they pose a
    threat to the market. It is happening in the App arena? I suspect the
    process of making an iBook will help inform students far more than
    actually interacting with one. Therein lies the value.If this
    process can bring down the cost of the device upon which to "read" the
    content then great. But otherwise it is just a glorified DVD
    encyclopaedia on the web. Don't forget the strength of the web is its
    interconnectedness and openness.If this merely becomes a closed,
    globally standardised curriculum machine then I'd be worried. There are
    certain questions unanswered - who will moderate the iTunes U content
    and subsequent spinoffs for institutions. A whole industry could be
    built around this - if it can be viewable on any device ubiquitously
    then there will be a revolution.There are HTML5 elements in the
    Authoring tool which means that there will be dynamic elements possible
    from outside of Apple's servers and content can be exported to different
    formats but the widget is invredibly hard to get up and running - HTML 5?.Remember, in order to create good content you need
    editorial teams with access to media making tools - 3D programs and high
    end HD cameras that can compress content down into the right formats.
    You'll also need an expert or celebrity to explain various multi-media
    elements. Not cheap and overheads involved. Unless, of course you build this into students' work but then production values are going to be incredibly high and time intensive. We've been here before with DK and pretty though those DVD's were no-one looked at them twice. Yes augment old resources but make them open or you risk painting yourself into a corner even if it is with a Tintoretto­...