A question of core values

Apple's e-textbooks are causing a stir, but an exciting non-commercial vision promises a bolder future for learners, argues Philipp Schmidt

February 2, 2012

Credit: Elly Walton

Apple's latest foray into electronic textbooks and education is causing a lot of excitement in the education world and beyond. Some of this is justified because it promises to lower the cost of e-textbooks, but the vote is still out on the educational benefit of e-textbooks in general, and Apple's new initiative in particular.

Apple has launched three tools that enable anyone to create and distribute textbooks and university course materials. It works like a publishing system in a box. iBooks Author is a free application to design great-looking interactive textbooks. The iBooks reader lets users download, read and annotate these books, but only on the iPad. And iTunes U, which had been part of iTunes, has grown into a stand-alone application that allows people to download free university-level course packs including video and audio resources.

As always with Apple announcements, there was an almost deafening amount of buzz in the blogosphere and Twitterverse. So much, in fact, that it was easy to overlook the positive response from consumers. Even though Apple's content partners released only seven textbooks for the launch, one study claims that more than 350,000 copies were downloaded through iBooks in the first three days. That is roughly equivalent to 25 per cent of the students enrolled in grades 9 and 10 in the UK, the target age group for the first set of books.

Although some of the big commercial textbook publishers included books in the launch, Apple's do-it-yourself publishing system is almost certainly bad news for them in the long run. Apple has in essence managed to split the textbook into two pieces, one being an expensive e-book cover (the iPad) and the other, content. This is clever because it shifts profits from the publishers - which make money from selling the content - to Apple, whose iPad is all of a sudden part of the textbook.

iBooks' high-school textbooks are priced at $14.99 (£10 in the UK), certainly a big improvement over print book costs. And prices are certain to come down once individual authors and the open education movement get in on the game. Open textbooks carry licences that allow anyone to adapt them. That also means they can be copied into the iBooks format and distributed through Apple's ecosystem for free, bringing the cost of a textbook to zero. California has already approved some of these openly licensed textbooks, and other states are following suit.

Apple and the publishers have kept mum about their plans for higher education - and probably for good reason. In the US, the cost of college textbooks is a huge political issue in the fight over public education. The average student in the US spends $900 (£570) a year on textbooks, making access to a college degree even harder for lower-income students. Previous e-book efforts from the large publishers have reduced those costs only marginally (especially compared with the thriving second-hand book market), and e-books haven't lived up to their promise to improve the textbook experience.

As a consequence, the education research community's negative response to Apple's announcement wasn't altogether unexpected. Partly this is Apple's own fault because, although its new e-textbooks have the capability to be interactive, it launched the project with a collection of titles that feel more like glorified PDFs.

Over time these books will get more interactive and more interesting. In the long run, however, the days of the textbook may be numbered. A new generation of education innovators suggest that the whole concept of the textbook is outdated and needs to be replaced by more adaptive learning environments, in which students work on problems that are targeted to their specific competency level. Content may be created by for-profit companies or by teachers who share among each other the materials they individually produce for their students.

In the meantime, more troubling than the pedagogical shortcomings of e-textbooks are the implications of handing over the entire education content system to one company. School districts in the US and elsewhere are ordering iPads for their students without considering the long-term effects that Apple's textbook initiative will have if it succeeds. It could lock authors into one distribution channel for their textbooks, forcing students to buy an iPad in order to have access to education.

As someone who believes that education is a public good, it makes me very uncomfortable to imagine a corporate entity gaining that amount of control.

For all the reasons that Apple's initiative falls flat, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's recent announcement of an initiative to offer free courses and certificates succeeds and is genuinely exciting. Building on and expanding its collection of open courseware, MITx will create communities of self-learners who work through these materials together. Access to the system will be free. In addition, students have the option to tackle a series of assessments and obtain an MITx certificate of completion for a small fee.

Apple's vision is a walled garden that offers a carefully curated experience to those willing to lock themselves into it. It will be shiny and beautiful, but education will be a commodity and Apple the company through which we will consume it.

MIT's vision is bolder. It sets us on the course to an educational future in which anyone, regardless of background, budget or location, has access to a high-quality education - even those who don't own iPads.

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