The Electric Educator: The Textbook Evolution Has [Finally] Begun!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Textbook Evolution Has [Finally] Begun!

Apple's announcement that it will begin supporting and encouraging the development of digital interactive textbooks has caused a considerable stir in the educational community. The stir is not just hype as Apple's decision marks an important shift in the publishing industry which has been woefully slow to adapt to and take advantage of emerging technologies.

I am the director of a fully online school. For the past six months I have been researching digital curriculum. I was interested in using digital textbooks instead of the typical self-contained course such as those produced by Florida Virtual School, K12/Aventa, etc. A few publishing companies offered such books, but this is what I discovered:

  • Few of these digital texts were truly "interactive." They ranged from PDF documents to websites. 
  • No one seemed to have an established pricing model for their ebooks. One company told me that in order to purchase their eBooks I would need to purchase a copy of their traditional textbook and they would throw in the eBook (evidently I was just supposed to store several hundred textbooks in a closet somewhere). 
  • None of the sales reps that I spoke with were knowledgeable about their eBook line. At the 2011 Virtual School Symposium, one of the largest textbook companies didn't even have the foresight to showcase their eBook at the conference or bring a sales rep who could speak about the books. 
If left to themselves, the publishing companies would have delayed the move toward digital textbooks at all costs. The similarities between the textbook companies, the music industry, and the newspaper industry is striking. Their lack of innovation and protection of [past] huge profits is disappointing. Here is the result of their "visionary" thinking:

  • Apple is now the #1 seller of music in the United States. It essentially controls the music industry. 
  • The News industry has seen a drop in everything: subscribers, circulation rates, and advertising revenue. Strong digital competitors like the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report are gaining traction, and significant ad revenue, against traditional outlets. 
Apple is poised, once again, to disrupt a bulwark of capitalism. Clearly, Apple's success indicates that innovation and creativity are more valuable than balance sheets and a love of "tradition."   

While I'm not thrilled at the proprietary nature of Apple's new textbook initiative, I give them credit for pushing the big textbook publishers into the 21st century. Without Apple's clout, it may have been another 12 years before we saw significant improvements in the textbook publishing model.

My hope is that Apple's investment into textbooks will encourage/force other platforms to develop similar ecosystems. Ultimately, I would love to see an open source platform emerge that would allow textbooks to be traded between devices.

Apple has succeeded in accomplishing more for American business and consumers than the federal government or traditional industries. Apple has its bruises, and I  certainly don't want to be a uncritical of a company that makes obscene amounts of money while ignoring unacceptable working conditions in China or being a monopolistic bully in the cell phone market. These faults aside though, I'm grateful that Educators have such a powerful ally in Apple who can move things forward when nothing else can.


  1. I was hoping Apple's involvement in the textbook areana would allow teachers to "sync" chapters from their iBooks library rather than need to download the entire textbook. (Much like syncing a few songs from an album to your ipod, yet having the entire album in your iTunes music library.) I can only download 2 of Pearson's textbooks that are available in the iBooks store to a 16GB iPad. If I could just sync chapters every few weeks, we would not have to invest in 64GB iPads. How are you considering managing the ipad textbook downloads?...Or do we have a choice since Apple "makes the rules?"

  2. Thanks for your comment. You have hit on a potentially big problem that I am also concerned about. The three chapter textbook sample that Apple made available was 3GB in size. As you've noted, this will quickly fill up a device.

    Apple's usual mode of operation is to push people to the higher end devices and slowly drop the lower end devices. They make the rules and own the field.

    I like your idea to only sync the chapters that are needed.


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