Friday, January 20, 2012

Apple take aim at textbook market

The last couple of days have been dominated by Apple's announcement of its new iBooks2 app and the iBook Author tool. The reviews came thick and fast from news sites and bloggers and 24 hours later it's not easy to find a new angle to write about. The main points of all the hype are:
  • Apple will distribute interactive multimedia "textbooks" for schools and colleges via iBooks for $14.99 or less.
  • The textbooks are optimized for iPads.
  • iBooks Author will be available free for teachers, writers and students to write their own interactive textbooks and publish them.
As you can see in the video below it certainly looks impressive and throws down the gauntlet to the academic publishing industry that has so far been rather reluctant to leave its printed comfort zone (at least here in the Nordic region). The ability to take notes, highlight and compile revision material and flash cards is extremely attractive and the ability to access all your course material on a device lighter than many standard textbooks is extremely attractive to students. As so many schools invest in one laptop/iPad/tablet per pupil the race is on to fill these devices with compelling and immersive learning resources. Apple of course wants to dominate this sector and by rolling out iBooks2 they hope to persuade more local authorities, schools and colleges to join the Apple family.

It's probably the authoring tool that has attracted most attention and controversy. The fact that teachers and students will be able to publish their own multimedia e-textbooks is extremely empowering and can very well leed to a major shift in the production and use of course literature. Schools can save a lot of well-needed cash by not needing to buy class sets of textbooks every year and the teachers can publish their own material. One article that was particularly positive to the opportunities of iBooks Author was 5 Ways iBooks Author Changes the Education Landscape.

However the big catch is that once created the content is tied in to Apple and cannot be distributed outside their walled garden. I simply can't share my book to anyone who cannot use iBooks and my content cannot be given a Creative Commons license. This is a point that many bloggers find unacceptable, for instance Marshall Kirkpatrick on ReadWriteWeb:

"It's hard to wrap my brain around the cold cynicism of Apple's releasing a new tool to democratize the publishing of eBooks today, only to include in the tool's terms and conditions a prohibition against selling those books anywhere but through Apple's own bookstore. There's just something so achingly awful about it."

Audrey Watters, as ever highly insightful, takes the discussion one step further in her blog post Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution. She sees the whole concept of textbooks as increasingly irrelevant as we are able to access a vast range of material directly on the net. Why do we need prepackaged textbooks at all when we should be encouraging students to fins sources for themselves and use the vast amount of resources that are freely available?

"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."

Once again Apple have succeeded in putting a cat among the pigeons and whatever you think about proprietary solutions and walled gardens there is no doubt that this model will inspire competitors to respond. Whatever solution wins the future of education is digital.

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