Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution


"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." -- Audre Lorde

Well here we go, after months of speculation -- beginning with the publication of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve jobs -- we now know about Apple's plans to "transform the textbook industry." There's been more than enough ink spilled waiting for this announcement, more than enough predictions about disruption and revolution. Such is the media machine that Apple commands, and even without the company's co-founder around today to deliver the news, it appears that the hype lives on.

This was, I should note, the first Apple press event since Steve Jobs' death in the fall of last year. CEO Tim Cook was not present. Instead, the announcements were made by Philip Schiller (Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing), Eddy Cue (Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services), and Roger Rosner (Vice President for Productivity Applications). I don't want to read too much in to Cook's absence here, and I think it would be foolish to suggest that neither education nor e-books matter to the company. Let's note the job titles though, shall we? And let's note what was missing: Steve Jobs' vision. What was missing was magic. What was missing was the kind of thing that made both fans and skeptics say, "Yes (perhaps) this changes everything."

See, you can't really say that you're going to "change everything" when it comes to textbooks and announce that your partners are the 3 companies who already control 90% of the textbook market. You can't say that you're going to disrupt the textbook industry by going digital when Pearson -- one of those big 3 and, indeed, the largest educational company in the world -- made over $3 billion from digital content last year alone.

That's not to say that digital content isn't shaking up the textbook industry. Like all publishers, our move from print to e-books is challenging these companies to rethink their revenue and distribution models. Add to the mix, the availability now of all manner of free content online, and it's clear that the necessity of purchasing textbooks -- at both the K-12 and the higher ed level -- is diminishing rapidly.

One of the things that digital content makes obvious is that the current physical manifestation of a print-bound textbook is a strangely awful construct -- one designed to remove students one step (at least one step) from the primary sources that inform the field they're studying. You don't read Darwin; you read "Introduction to Biology." You don't read de Tocqueville; you read "American History I." Sure, textbooks offer easier-to-digest summaries of the content, geared to the particular grade level of the student. They offer diagrams and illustrations and review questions and a glossary. But textbooks are always an assembly from a variety of sources, geared towards a classroom setting where the teacher leads students through the chapters and the exercises and the examinations. Neither the teacher nor the student is expected to be an expert. You just need to know enough to pass the test.

Digitizing that model of instruction changes nothing. Adding video changes nothing. Pinch and zoom and flashcards change nothing.

Textbooks (and those tests) are, of course, big business. Incidentally they're often controlled by one and the same company too. Schools, particularly at the K-12 level, are sold the books, the curriculum, and the tests -- at a cost of billions of dollars per year. The textbook piece of that industry is a $10 billion per year market in the US alone, according to the Association of American Publishers.

So -- and pardon the pun here -- the question at hand for someone (Jobs?) was whether or not to upset the apple cart or take a slice of the pie. Or both. Or, I suppose, neither.

Once you've recognized that textbooks are just an assemblage of resources and that, in a digital world, there's no reason to bind it together and publish these en masse, then I think you can see a path to liberation from that industry model. You can disassemble, reassemble, unbundle, disrupt, destroy the textbook. It is truly an irrelevant format.

"Enhancing" the textbook with bells and whistles and video and slideshows only gets you part of the way there. Sure, we can take a series of photos of cellular mitosis, for example, and now -- thanks to the new electronic features -- show a video instead. We can take a photo and make it manipulable, allowing students to rotate and zoom and annotate a diagram of a cell. We can add voiceover and animation and push notifications and weekly (or hell, even real-time) updates. We can add links to "more information." We can recommend they buy other apps (something that the new iTunes U app now does).

But none of that requires a textbook per se. Not in the print format that we know it. And not in a digital copy that's offered for the "bargain" price of $14.99 per student per year.

Today Apple touted all the reasons we've heard before about why textbooks just aren't that great: they're heavy. They're out-of-date. They're expensive. They're boring. Kids, however, love iPads. Kids want iPads. And so the logic goes I guess, textbooks on iPads are weightless, up-to-date, affordable, interactive, exciting, engaging, desirable. It's the same great content we've always had in textbooks, Phil Schiller said onstage today, just in a new digital format.

That pronouncement right there strikes me as completely silly and wrong-headed, and if that was the only part of the news today -- that Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton-Mifflin were just going to make their awesome textbooks available in the iBookstore in shinier formats -- we could just shrug and say, as e-textbook app-maker CourseSmart said yesterday in a rather surly press release "Welcome to the party, Apple."

But there are new wrinkles here. New wrinkles and new chains.

As I've written before a number of times, (college) students have been incredibly reluctant to adopt digital textbooks, in no small part because they don't save them any money. That's seems like part of the promise of digital content, I think -- something we learned when we realized we could just buy an album on iTunes for $9.99 rather than shell out $14.99 for a CD. Digital should be cheaper. So sayeth us all.

And so at first blush, the promise of an iTextbook no spendier than $14.99 seems like a great deal. But a closer look should give us all great pause. For one thing, this price cap only holds for high school textbooks. There was no word today about how or if this pricing would hold for higher ed or for K-8. There's no word that this price will actually stick.

While it's a hard thing to defend here -- particularly when we think about an alternative that means having access to constantly updated e-books -- most schools do not purchase new textbooks every year. They simply cannot afford to. And not every school gives each student her or his own book; plenty of schools expect students to share. As such, suddenly $14.99 per year per student per book seems like a great deal for publishers and not such a great deal for the students or districts who must under this new "deal" purchase them annually. Each student gets to own her or his own textbook, Schiller said today. Well, I'm sure that's what each and every high school student in America has always regretted: Why oh why do I not own my own personal copy of Intro to Trigonometry?!

Even if that were some secret unconscious desire -- personal ownership of a high school textbook -- this all requires personal ownership (or a school's ownership and lending) of an iPad. Not just a handful of iPads available on a laptop cart that's wheeled into a classroom when it's time for math or science or reading. One iPad per child, I suppose -- leave the OLPC movement for the Others. For context on how far we need to go for this to happen, Apple said that some 1.5 million iPads are in use in educational institutions today, but only 1000 schools have 1:1 iPad programs. There are almost 100,000 public schools in the US and about as third as many private schools.

So if this is a revolutionary announcement about reshaping textbooks and educational content, we must ask revolutionary for whom? For wealthy schools? For students who have iPads at home and parents willing to pay out of pocket for supplementary textbook materials? For publishers?

Some might respond -- and plenty of tech pundits have today -- that by handing over the tools to build books to anyone, that the monopoly that publishers hold over the textbook industry has been destroyed. A new sort of Domino Effect, I suppose, where we can work ourselves up into a frenzy about revolutionary potentials. Of course, I would contend that other forces are challenging the publishers' monopoly. These forces include the open Web and the growing open educational resources (OER) movement, that is making content available, accessible, free, extensible, remixable, and sharable.

See, we can already build our own digital textbooks -- we already are -- although true, without as tools as slick as the new iBooks Author.

But ah, the iBooks Author. This is, without a doubt, "Apple at its worst." And those aren't my words. That's how one of Apple's fiercest defenders, John Gruber of Daring Fireball, describes the terms under which this new e-book creation tool operates. Pointing to Dan Wineman's examination of the iBooks Author EULA, it's fairly clear that this is a bad deal. It's a bad deal for authors. It's a bad deal for schools. It's a bad deal for students.

Even though the new proprietary format that the books are exported in is really just a few tweaks away from ePUB, Apple makes it clear that iBooks Author (a Mac only app) makes books for iBooks only (which remains iOS only). If you choose to utilize the new "free" e-book creation tool to build and sell your e-book content, then you are signing over exclusivity rights to Apple as your sole distributor. Even though you'll have an ISBN, you are barred from listing your book in other e-bookstores.

Okay, you say. Well, I'll just give it away for free. Even then, it's not clear how licensing works. As I experimented with the tool today, I could find no way to mark my creation as CC-SA-BY, the license I opt to use for my work. And that's just the words that I hammer out. It speaks nothing of the words that I would opt to take and assemble from other scholars -- scholars who also license their work openly, of course -- if I were to build a textbook.

And here I return full circle. A textbook is always an assembly from a variety of sources. Apple had an opportunity to help us disassemble that today, making it easier -- as Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson -- to bypass all the bureaucracy that has grown up around this awful industry. Instead, all the bureaucracy and all the bullshit and all the restrictions -- with WOOHOO! INTERACTIVITY! (except as Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes, that's interactivity between you and a textbook, not between you and other learners) -- packaged in one bitter pill.

What a lost opportunity. And what a slap in the face to educators and students.

Apple has long benefited from the incredible goodwill of the education community. We continued to use Macs when the rest of the world went with Windows. We did so because we believed the hardware was better, the networking was easier, the software was more conducive to creation, and because the company really did live at the "intersection of the liberal arts and technology." It's clear today, as I tweeted in frustration and in sadness listening to today's announcement, that that intersection is really a dead-end.

As such, I caution us all strenuously not to skip happily and naively down that road, no matter what Apple promises the signposts say.

Photo credits: Flickr user Zimpenfish

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