Apple’s entrance into the textbook market can be transformational

Apple’s new version of the iBooks app and the new iTunes U app for the iPad have the potential to change education by changing what textbooks are and how students use them. This was one of the projects Steve Jobs left unfinished.

There are currently only a handful of books available, all for $15 and with free sample chapters. (Download them from iTunes). There is also a free biology textbook. I downloaded the bio book and the sample physics chapters, and they were impressive, combining text, graphics, audio and video in a polished, multimedia volume. This wasn’t your typical primate’s physics book.

Textbook sample

Page from bio textbook (click for larger image)

So far, Pearson and McGraw Hill are the only publishers, but Apple released a free toolkit for the Mac to create textbooks in their format.

The downside to all this is that the books run only on the iPad, which costs roughly $400 to $800. Many parents simply can’t afford to spend that. And don’t look to public school districts, whose teachers often have to spend their own money to buy basic supplies for their classrooms. That means these multimedia textbooks will probably start out in the private schools of the one percent.

The good news is the price of non-Apple tablets are coming way down, and school districts will be able to purchase them in bulk for about $10 each. They’re no iPads, but they’ll work fine for education. Until these are available, schools can still use tablets, but keep them in the classrooms.

Apple multimedia textbook

Page from bio textbook (click for larger image)

That means electronic textbooks will have to be available in an open format that will run on non-Apple hardware, or Apple will have to make hardware affordable for education. If the textbooks I downloaded become a standard, this will be a real game changer.

We’ve all seen statistics showing how far American schools are behind the rest of the world. But if you remove the stats from American schools in poor districts, the U.S. is way ahead of everyone else. So to fix education in this country, either solve poverty in general – this won’t happen in my lifetime – or at least solve the poverty in education. If good education weren’t considered a luxury, everybody would benefit. If the U.S. spent 1% of the cost of the Iraq war on education, it would be transformational. Could you imagine the uproar if someone in Washington proposed to spend $30 billion on education?

One day, this will all be in someone’s multimedia history textbook.


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