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Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution

20 January 2012

From journalist Audrey Watters:

Well here we go, after months of speculation — beginning with the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve jobs – we now know about Apple’s plans to “transform the textbook industry.” There’s been more than enough ink spilled waiting for this announcement, more than enough predictions about disruption and revolution. Such is the media machine that Apple commands, and even without the company’s co-founder around today to deliver the news, it appears that the hype lives on.

. . . .

And let’s note what was missing: Steve Jobs’ vision. What was missing was magic. What was missing was the kind of thing that made both fans and skeptics say, “Yes (perhaps) this changes everything.”

See, you can’t really say that you’re going to “change everything” when it comes to textbooks and announce that your partners are the 3 companies who already control 90% of the textbook market. You can’t say that you’re going to disrupt the textbook industry by going digital when Pearson – one of those big 3 and, indeed, the largest educational company in the world — made over $3 billion from digital content last year alone.

That’s not to say that digital content isn’t shaking up the textbook industry. Like all publishers, our move from print to e-books is challenging these companies to rethink their revenue and distribution models. Add to the mix, the availability now of all manner of free content online, and it’s clear that the necessity of purchasing textbooks — at both the K-12 and the higher ed level — is diminishing rapidly.

One of the things that digital content makes obvious is that the current physical manifestation of a print-bound textbook is a strangely awful construct — one designed to remove students one step (at least one step) from the primary sources that inform the field they’re studying. You don’t read Darwin; you read “Introduction to Biology.” You don’t read de Tocqueville; you read “American History I.” Sure, textbooks offer easier-to-digest summaries of the content, geared to the particular grade level of the student. They offer diagrams and illustrations and review questions and a glossary. But textbooks are always an assembly from a variety of sources, geared towards a classroom setting where the teacher leads students through the chapters and the exercises and the examinations. Neither the teacher nor the student is expected to be an expert. You just need to know enough to pass the test.

. . . .

So — and pardon the pun here — the question at hand for someone (Jobs?) was whether or not to upset the apple cart or take a slice of the pie. Or both. Or, I suppose, neither.

Once you’ve recognized that textbooks are just an assemblage of resources and that, in a digital world, there’s no reason to bind it together and publish these en masse, then I think you can see a path to liberation from that industry model. You can disassemble, reassemble, unbundle, disrupt, destroy the textbook. It is truly an irrelevant format.

“Enhancing” the textbook with bells and whistles and video and slideshows only gets you part of the way there. Sure, we can take a series of photos of cellular mitosis, for example, and now — thanks to the new electronic features — show a video instead. We can take a photo and make it manipulable, allowing students to rotate and zoom and annotate a diagram of a cell. We can add voiceover and animation and push notifications and weekly (or hell, even real-time) updates. We can add links to “more information.” We can recommend they buy other apps (something that the new iTunes U app now does).

But none of that requires a textbook per se. Not in the print format that we know it. And not in a digital copy that’s offered for the “bargain” price of $14.99 per student per year.

. . . .

But there are new wrinkles here. New wrinkles and new chains.

As I’ve written before a number of times, (college) students have been incredibly reluctant to adopt digital textbooks, in no small part because they don’t save them any money. That’s seems like part of the promise of digital content, I think — something we learned when we realized we could just buy an album on iTunes for $9.99 rather than shell out $14.99 for a CD. Digital should be cheaper. So sayeth us all.

. . . .

Well, I’m sure that’s what each and every high school student in America has always regretted: Why oh why do I not own my own personal copy of Intro to Trigonometry?!

Even if that were some secret unconscious desire — personal ownership of a high school textbook — this all requires personal ownership (or a school’s ownership and lending) of an iPad. Not just a handful of iPads available on a laptop cart that’s wheeled into a classroom when it’s time for math or science or reading. One iPad per child, I suppose — leave the OLPC movement for the Others. For context on how far we need to go for this to happen, Apple said that some 1.5 million iPads are in use in educational institutions today, but only 1000 schools have 1:1 iPad programs. There are almost 100,000 public schools in the US and about as third as many private schools.

So if this is a revolutionary announcement about reshaping textbooks and educational content, we must ask revolutionary for whom? For wealthy schools? For students who have iPads at home and parents willing to pay out of pocket for supplementary textbook materials? For publishers?

. . . .

See, we can already build our own digital textbooks – we already are – although true, without as tools as slick as the new iBooks Author.

But ah, the iBooks Author. This is, without a doubt, “Apple at its worst.” And those aren’t my words. That’s how one of Apple’s fiercest defenders, John Gruber of Daring Fireball, describes the terms under which this new e-book creation tool operates. Pointing to Dan Wineman‘s examination of the iBooks Author EULA, it’s fairly clear that this is a bad deal. It’s a bad deal for authors. It’s a bad deal for schools. It’s a bad deal for students.

Even though the new proprietary format that the books are exported in is really just a few tweaks away from ePUB, Apple makes it clear that iBooks Author (a Mac only app) makes books for iBooks only (which remains iOS only). If you choose to utilize the new “free” e-book creation tool to build and sell your e-book content, then you are signing over exclusivity rights to Apple as your sole distributor. Even though you’ll have an ISBN, you are barred from listing your book in other e-bookstores.

Okay, you say. Well, I’ll just give it away for free. Even then, it’s not clear how licensing works. As I experimented with the tool today, I could find no way to mark my creation as CC-SA-BY, the license I opt to use for my work. And that’s just the words that I hammer out. It speaks nothing of the words that I would opt to take and assemble from other scholars — scholars who also license their work openly, of course — if I were to build a textbook.

. . . .

What a lost opportunity. And what a slap in the face to educators and students.

Link to the rest at Hack Education

Apple, Enhanced Ebooks

2 Comments to “Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution”

  1. Crossing fingers that at least textbooks will start having to beat the $14.99 price point… :/

  2. I’ve been a teacher, a textbook sales rep, and an author, so this article hits me on at least three different angles.

    With regards to what the writer said about etextbooks not saving students money, I think the textbook industry is in even worse shape than the trade publishing industry. A textbook takes a LOT of time, money, and resources to put together. I mean a LOT. Much more than a trade book, which really only requires one author and then a small team of people to see the book through editing and assembly. With textbooks, we’re talking whole teams of authors, even larger teams of professional reviewers, several editors, several dedicated marketing people, a wide sales force capable of hitting the ground on every large and significant campus in the country, the list goes on and on.

    Indie ebook authors are taking off, at least in part, because they’re able to undercut the traditionally published competition. The expenses for self-publishing are now very low, and the big publishing houses can’t compete with that. Well, that’s even more the case with textbooks than it is in any other genre I’m aware of. Perhaps the author is onto something when they suggest the textbook model is outdated, and maybe the future isn’t so much in individual textbook writing as it is in creating curriculum models that are easily navigated and cull together various forms of necessary materials. But at the same time, as a teacher, I wouldn’t discount the importance of a textbook in putting together a singular, understandable narrative.

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