First Thoughts: Apple’s Attempts to Revolutionize Education

Today, Apple announced iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and a new, free iTunes U app. Apple executives tout these as efforts to reinvent education and curriculum, and at first blush, they look very exciting.

 I will NOT leave the textbook industry in the same state that I found it.

The video demos of interactive textbooks, allowing textbook authors to embed videos and interactive elements within their textbooks are definitely in keeping with current trends in educational philosophy. The price points for the textbooks ($14.99!) is an amazing departure from the normal (astronomical) prices of textbooks. The expansion of iTunes U to K-12 institutions is also a potential game-changer, allowing primary and secondary schools to offer their courses for free online.

When you dig down into the innards of how it all works, though, the plan seems to break down quite a bit. Will iBooks 2 really sound a death knell for more traditional paper-based textbooks? Will iTunes U become the next trend in digital learning, replacing the likes of Blackboard and other Course Management Systems? Could we really see our children carrying around a slim iPad with all of their textbooks on it, instead of backpacks overflowing and bursting at the seams with textbooks?

I’m trying to be optimistic, but I’m quite honestly dubious. The problems I see with this fall into these categories:

  1. Institutional adoption of the iPad as the sole means of content delivery
  2. Restriction of textbooks to a single marketplace
  3. Furthering the premise that education has to be entertaining in all aspects

 Institutional Adoption of the iPad

Right now, educational funding is in a downward spiral. Sure, there are a few affluent school districts with the financial abilities to purchase iPads for all of their students, but those districts are the exception, not the rule. Most districts barely have the funding to keep themselves afloat and maintain their existing computer assets, let alone spend $500+ per student for an iPad that could be broken within the first month or two of the school year.

While a number of students may come from families that can afford an iPad for each child, the majority of students (especially in inner-city schools) come from families that can barely afford to eat. Are these students going to have access to the iPad? Doubtful, at best, in the absence of grant funding to allow the schools the ability to provide the iDevices. That grant money just isn’t there in our existing economic climate.

This challenge can affect not only the success of iBooks 2 as a textbook source, but also the success of iTunes U. After all, the iTunes U app is only available on iOS devices. While iTunes U content could, in the past, be accessible via iTunes on a Mac or Windows PC, the iTunes U app is only available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.

In other words, the minimum entry price for access to the iTunes U app is around $188, beyond the reach of the majority of families today. How can schools adopt iTunes U as their delivery mechanism, when their students cannot afford the devices necessary to access the classes?

Restriction of Textbooks to a Single Marketplace

Now, in the nitty-gritty details of the requirements for publishers to list their textbooks in the iBooks 2 bookstore is this little gem: those textbooks must be priced at $14.99 or less, and be exclusively available to iBooks 2 users! This means publishers are forced to develop textbooks that can only be sold through a single platform—online, via the iBooks 2 bookstore.

How much support will the publishers be able to maintain for this marketplace, if the userbase doesn’t expand enough to make it profitable? We’ve got students who can’t afford the iPad device…coupled with textbooks that can’t be read on anything except the iPad device (because let’s face it, even if the textbooks can be read on an iPod Touch, the layout is going to be horrendous and the iPod Touch just isn’t a good medium for reading/experiencing textbooks.)

Sounds to me like a no-win scenario if the schools adopt those textbooks. The schools can’t afford to provide the iPad to their students, the students can’t afford to purchase the device on their own, and the students can’t read the textbook on any other device! Suddenly, we see the Achilles’ Heel in Apple’s plan to reinvent education: we see the gap between the educated and the uneducated widening, because the students no longer have access to their educational materials!

Furthering the Premise that Education Must be Entertaining

During the event, much noise was made of the fact that text is boring. Reading is passe; we need to incorporate videos, interactive elements, and pretty pictures. We’ve been seeing the effects of this mentality, honestly, ever since the advent of the television: people are reading less and less, and are more and more reliant on entertainment and shock value than ever before.

The 6 o’clock news has turned into a 3-ring circus, because the only way to keep America’s attention is to appeal to their morbid sense of curiosity. We see pictures of dead bodies, we see video footage of natural disasters, and we watch in awe as war journalists duck under cover to report during a firefight. What we don’t see, however, is the American sitting down with a newspaper or a book, and spending time actually studying.

In our children (and even our young adults), we see an increase in illiteracy. When my students write essays, those essays are more and more filled with “txtspeek.” Gone are the days of being concerned with proper spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Instead, we focus on exerting as little effort as possible to convey our message, and now we are to be encouraged by the possibility of exerting as little effort as possible to receive our education?

Rather than reading a history book, are we going to just watch a re-enactment of it on video, thus missing out on whatever the movie producer felt was unimportant? Instead of reading grammatical rules, are we going to just watch the words float together in CGI animation?


Convergent media, or new media, does have its place in education. I realize that. It’s much more effective to see the effects of a chemical reaction than to just read about them. But do we really want to give over our entire education to an entertainment media? Do we truly want to widen the gap between the “haves” and “have nots,” by denying them equal access to education, simply because their family cannot afford the luxury of an iPad 2?

I do not believe, for one minute, that any of us really want to see this happen…but I cannot see any other outcome, given our country’s current financial state. I think the possibilities of the iTunes U expansion and the iBooks 2 textbook marketplace are wonderful, but I think we need to take a step back and decide if today is truly the day to begin that particular revolution.