Stephen Tyler

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.

An education revolution?

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Today Apple announced its new initiatives in education, claiming they will spark a revolution in education.  Lets look at the details to see if Apple’s claims hold up to scrutiny:

Pricing

$15 per textbook is quite a discount from the average $75 being charged for printed textbooks. So how did Apple get the publishers to agree to such a low price?

In the past, electronic textbooks have been sold at the same or even higher price than the printed copy. But it turns out that there is a lot of reuse of printed textbooks. They are often resold, lent, given away or otherwise reused over a number or years by several students. Many schools have established a second-hand textbook store to help students minimize their textbook expenses.  So the publishers were actually only selling around one textbook per 5 students. With the new $15 iBook price, the student will be unable to lend or resell the textbook, increasing sales dramatically and also eliminating manufacturing and distribution costs. So $15 isn’t such a huge discount after all.

Competition, or lack thereof.

Textbooks created with the iBooks Author application may not be sold through any channel except the Apple iTunes/iBooks store.  So Android tablets and Windows netbooks are prohibited markets for textbooks created with iBooks Author.  From the iBooks Author EULA:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.

Any textbook publisher wishing to sell in multiple markets will now need to author textbooks in at least 3 different ways: traditional printed versions, the new iBooks version, and a cross-platform electronic version for other devices.

Tied to the iPad

Curiously, Apple’s initiative supports only the iPad.  Not the iPhone, iPod, iMac or Macbook Pro.  Although the iPad is a great device for consuming content, it is not so great for producing content.  I can’t see many students producing long essays on the iPad, and printing from the iPad is much more clumsy than from a computer.  Multiple-choice tests may be all the creative work that the student will be able to readily achieve on the iPad, severely restricting the scope of possible assignments.  I was not able to find any mechanism for test results to be communicated back to the teacher.

In Australia, Windows 7 netbooks are provided to every public high-school student in grades 9 to 12.  So even though such machines are capable to reading ePub files and using iTunes, textbook publishers may not sell iBooks Author produced files to those students.

File Sizes

Although Apple has stated that the maximum file size is 2GB, many of the initial launch offerings were around 3GB.  And many of the samples were around 1GB for just a couple of chapters.  At these sizes, the entry-level 16GB iPad will only be able to hold a few textbooks.

What is missing

  • Collaboration – student to student, and student to teacher communication.
  • Exercises and testing – a vital part of the learning process.
  • Reuse and sharing – such as copy and paste into projects, assignments and essays.
  • Cross-platform – only iPad is supported.

Conclusion

Apple introduced a new iBook format for the iPad, allowing the creation of more interactive textbooks featuring videos, audio, animations and other “multimedia”.  The iBook remains, however, largely a content delivery platform, lacking any more than rudimentary support of content creation by students (such as essays, assignments and projects), assessment (eg testing and graded delivery) and collaboration (between students and from student to teacher).  The new iBook thus moves from a purely passive replica of a printed textbook in the direction of a touch-screen kiosk, but fails to provide a complete online-classroom.

By eliminating the possibility of trading second-hand textbooks, Apple has negotiated a less outrageous cost for the new textbooks at a maximum of US$15 per high-school textbook.  But such text books are only available for the iPad, excluding other tablets, netbooks and laptops commonly used by students.

It is not a revolution like the new undergraduate courses at Stanford such as Machine Learning, but it is still a significant move for one aspect (textbook publishing) of education for K-12.

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