Apple’s move into textbook business will be a game changer

12 Jan 2012

The Apple iPad 2

All wags are waxing on about Apple launching into the education books business or the textbook business on 19 January at an event in the Guggenheim in New York. It is being tabled as a minor event because it’s about content rather than any shiny new device. But I think this could be massively significant.

Anyone who cares about technology ultimately cares about education, because it is where everything begins. Anyone who is in any way associated with technology also knows that the education system today in most countries is out of date and also knows there is a better way.

It’s a no brainer when you think about it – Apple could easily sell mainstream education book titles in most countries via iTunes or iBooks and editions can be updated via iCloud for access devices from iPads to MacBooks.

I feel sorry for children in the back-to-school season when you see them lumbering up the road with massive bags on their backs full of heavy books, when one light device can carry it all.

Not only am I thinking of the damage to their spines, but I’m also thinking of the damage to their parents’ wallets each and every year as education systems force families to buy new editions of old books along with uniforms and gym kits.

By making schoolbooks available in this way, firstly, the book titles could be cheaper.

Secondly, families who need support from the State in buying school books need only be given a redeem code coupon and can download the books as apps.

The digital divide

But this does not solve the overall problem of the digital divide – not every family can afford to give their children expensive new tablets or notebook computers and not every town or region has top quality broadband.

But by making this move, Apple is starting a revolution that could be as pervasive as the mobile device revolution has been in the last decade.

Simply put, it’s an efficient delivery system. Not only that, e-books with the right technology embedded in them can also bring learning to life in terms of workbook type tests, animation, videos, video games, the ability to record projects in video and audio, etc.

Education publishers who don’t want to see their traditional business models interrupted need to get with the 21st century anyhow, and see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. You can’t hold back the flood. Creating digital content in tandem with more adventurous book titles will in turn generate new revenues, new jobs and will enhance the learning pattern. It could also be a massive export opportunity.

Take for example St Colman’s College in Claremorris, Co Mayo, which started bringing iPads into use from September this year. All 90 new first-year students were given the choice to use the tablet for work instead of carrying school books. Each iPad comes with a suite of learning apps installed on them. The package costs €700, covering the three-year period of the junior cycle. The decision was made after several weeks of consultation with teachers, students and parents and 96pc supported the option.

And it’s not just about iPads, no doubt Amazon will get into this game in a big way to deliver textbooks to inexpensive Android devices.

Personal computers like the Intel-backed Fizzbook are also adding to this revolution. St Fintina’s Post Primary School, in Longwood, Co Meath, recently equipped all its first-year students with laptops with e-books installed as part of an initiative pioneered by Intel, Steljes and The Education Company of Ireland (Edco).

Irish online education publisher Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt recently unveiled a year-long pilot of the first-ever full curriculum algebra app for the iPad. The app, which was created here in Dublin by HMH’s R&D team, is being piloted in school districts across California.

It is largely fear of change combined with budgets that are holding nations back from deploying 21st-century learning technologies in the classroom.

In its imitable way, Apple could be igniting the fires of a revolution that is long overdue.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years