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Apple vs. the textbook: Can education go paperless?

Apple announced that it was "reinventing the textbook" using the iPad, its iBooks bookstore and a new kind of book creation tool. But despite the tremendous success of the iPad in recent years, and despite the biggest partners in educational publishing, does the company have the ability to effect real change? Or is Apple ignoring some serious obstacles? Content providers and education experts are torn.

During a press event on Thursday, Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller explained that the "iPad is rapidly being adopted by schools" and that the brand-new iBooks 2 app will offer students an interactive way to learn using a device they may already be familiar with.

Schiller described the iBooks Author app and how it can be used to easily create these interactive learning experiences. He also announced that three major textbook publishers — Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — are working to provide content priced at $14.99 and under.

What Schiller didn't touch on, however, is how Apple will control the quality of textbooks offered through the iBookstore, whether these interactive textbooks will truly be a help (rather than a distraction), and how he expects all these snazzy new tools to make their way to students who may not be able to afford iPads.


Can Apple control quality and manage the educational boards?

As soon as the iBooks Author tool was introduced, many Apple watchers who had previously witnessed the garbaging up of the iTunes App Store — with useless or redundant fart or flashlight apps — let out a collective sigh.

How long until the shiny new corner of the iBookstore, where the textbooks will reside, is filled with hastily made, low-quality products, or worse yet, works of high quality that nevertheless contain misleading or unsubstantiated information.

Ben Jackson, an independent app developer based in New York, told me he believes that Apple has learned a lesson from the App Store — to which it refuses to admit useless apps nowadays — and that it will subject textbooks to some form of review which is "as strict, if not more strict, than app review policies" as this content is "directed towards kids for the purpose of learning."

Mac McCarthy, publisher and founding editor-in-chief of IDG Books, told me that he's confident that existing textbook review processes will continue to exist as well, and be applied to books supplied through the iBookstore — with a little twist. 

"This will turn out to be as important a move on Apple's part as anything they have ever done — iTunes, but in education — totally disruptive against a bad system, for good," wrote McCarthy, commenting during Technologizer's liveblog of the announcement. When I asked him to elaborate on that remark, he explained that the way textbooks are currently approved for classroom use frequently drives publishers to do things that aren't good for students.

Bloated, overpriced textbooks are a symptom of one-size-fits-all publishing, a necessity for the imprints who have to jump through hoops pitching the same textbook to multiple approval committees in multiple state and local jurisdictions. By giving even the bigger publishing houses more flexibility, iBooks 2 may be able to remove some of these issues from the playing field entirely.

Does an interactive textbook really facilitate learning?

Before Schiller dove into the iBooks 2 announcement, he made it a point to discuss the flaws of traditional textbooks. Such textbooks, he explained, aren't the most ideal learning tool. They can be cumbersome, get dog-eared and suffer from wear. They're not interactive, easily searchable or cheap. 

And that's why the iPad and iBooks 2 are supposedly necessary — to offer learning experiences filled with movies, multitouch gestures, links, lightning-fast searches, photo galleries, instant quizzes, automatic flashcard creation and other interactive elements.

These features sound great on paper, and they solve problems that those who have graduated already suffered from (but managed to live with) throughout the education process, but how great will everything be in practice?

Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a nationwide program that helps K-12 schools integrate technology into the classroom, suggests that we likely won't see the textbook reinvention we're being told is occurring. "Publishers will still create and students will still consume," she told me. "If heavy backpacks were the only issue, [iBooks 2] would be amazing, but as that isn't the case, [it's] simply more convenient."

All the features offered by iBooks 2 are great, Martinez said, but they're still not changing how education is being approached. We're still attempting to "deliver learning to students," instead of focusing on reality — which is that students need to be encouraged to learn.

"Students taking notes, creating flashcards and taking quizzes after reading a text are not revolutionary, even when spiced up by multimedia. Students should be creators, not consumers. Decreasing the weight of student backpacks may provide a health benefit but says nothing about learning in the 21st century," she said.

"But," Martinez acknowledged, "some teachers and students will [use iBooks 2] and that can be great." Perhaps some students will even begin to get in groups and create their very own textbooks using iBooks Author.

Did you bring enough iPads for the whole class?

Though Apple is certain to work to address many of the above issues in the months and years to come, there's still one glaring problem: How do you get iPads to every student in the U.S.?

Schiller mentioned that over 1.5 million iPads are being used in education, but that number is meaningless without context.

U.S. Census statistics show that there are well over 57 million enrolled students between the ages of 5 and 19. Factor in students who don't fall into that age range — plus teachers and motivated parents — and suddenly Schiller's number isn't quite as impressive.

A soon-to-be-released national survey by PBS LearningMedia, an online media-on-demand service, reveals that while 91 percent of teachers surveyed "reported having access to computers in their classrooms" only "one in five (22 percent) said they have the right level of technology." I would doubt that many would count iPads as "the right level of technology" when they are struggling to fulfill their minimal needs. Sixty-three percent of those teachers cited budget constraints as the "biggest barrier to accessing tech in the classroom."

What is certain is that while the notion of iPad textbooks offers great promise, by pledging to take the digital classroom to the next level, Apple raises as many concerns as it answers.

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