Apple’s Latest Push Into Education: Digital Textbooks, iBooks Author, and iTunes U

Apple announced its new foray into education today with a presentation that included details on iBooks 2 (and the digital textbooks available therein), iBooks Author (an app for the creation of digital textbooks), and the latest on iTunes U.

iBooks 2
Apple wants to reinvent textbooks, and it’s starting with iBooks 2. Via the free iBooks 2 app, iPad users can download gorgeous digital textbooks, which are incredibly interactive. It’s a breeze to get to the table of contents and jump to pages from there, and the entire book is searchable. The pages have beautiful hi-res photos, embedded videos, and interactive images that let you zoom in to view content or show pop-ups with additional information. The review sections on these digital textbooks are equally immersive and attractive.

Apple senior vice president for worldwide marketing Phil Schiller

Users can just swipe to highlight some text, and adding a note is as simple as tapping an icon and entering text. You can conveniently view all your notes and highlights in one place; the textbooks even automatically create study cards from them.

iBooks Author
A companion to iBooks 2 is iBooks Author, a simple yet powerful (and free) Mac app to let anyone create their own digital textbooks. It looks as easy to use as possible, with customizable templates, multitouch widgets, and interactive elements; even publishing finished works to iBookstore is a one-click process. (We wonder if there will be a vetting process to ensure that poor-quality, offensive, and inaccurate textbooks stay out of the mix. Surely there must be one.)

iBookstore, for its part, has a new section just for textbooks. The books will cost $14.99 or less, and authors can update them whenever they need to; changes will presumably be downloaded to users’ iPads. Students can keep the purchased textbooks for life.

Apple has worked with educational publishers to develop content, too, including with Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (which, according to Apple at least, is responsible for more than 90% of the textbooks sold in the U.S.). The collaborations with various publishers has already led to the creation of digital textbooks for kids K-12.

iTunes U
iTunes U is a terrific platform that allows institutions of higher learning to distribute lectures and content to anyone with an iOS device. According to Apple, 1,000 colleges and universities already use it, and iTunes U has seen over 700 million downloads.

iTunes U (another free app) now gives users access to content to complete online courses for free. Professors (or whatever grad student is doing the grunt work) can add syllabi, reading assignments, video lectures, and more; it’s an entire content management and distribution system. Now, it’s also available to students K-12.

Apple’s announcements today demonstrate some wonderfully compelling technology, and while the free aspects of it all such as the apps themselves, less expensive textbooks, and iTunes U content are invaluable (free auditing of Ivy League classes? Yes please), there are some issues to consider.

The biggest one is the cost of the hardware. Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide marketing, uttered this spit take-worthy quote in his presentation: “[The iPad] is affordable, not only for families, but for schools.” The iPad is simply not an affordable device, not when it’s being deployed in bulk and supposedly intended for one student and one student only at a time, and especially not when considering the costs of device lifecycles, repairs, and lost or stolen iPads. (Nobody wants to steal textbooks; everybody wants to steal iPads.)

The entire proposition makes a lot of sense for colleges and universities, though; plenty of institutions of higher learning have been experimenting with giving students their own laptops and tablets, and Apple’s announcements today make those efforts easier and more valuable in those instances.

Apple is smart (financially) to keep all of this marvellous technology, from creation to distribution to consumption, in its own ecosystem. And for all the talk of disrupting the textbook industry, Apple has deals with the major players in place. They will all rake in torrents of money--not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.

Finally, it’s worth noting that these educational tools, however impressive, can’t replace the value of great teachers that can engage young minds, nor can they magically motivate those who aren’t interested in learning in the first place. Still, we hope that Apple’s innovations help, in whatever capacity, to improve the educational system at any and all levels.