ZDNet and countless other sites, both tech and general, educational and otherwise, have already featured everything from glowing reviews to scathing commentary on Apple's textbook announcement last week. Now that the dust has settled, though, and we've had some time to reflect (as well as use the product), is this the disruptive move that many of us were expecting? Unfortunately, the answer is no. It's an important move, an influential move, and an "it's about time" move, but iBooks is going to be much more of a catalyst than anything that is going to save schools boatloads of money or make the electronic textbook finally go mainstream. In fact, a closed ecosystem just might put us a few steps back.
There is no doubt that the textbooks created for iBooks are beautiful. They are models of interactive, next-generation eTextbooks. Same goes for eBooks created through iBooks Author, the complementary Apple software that allows any Mac user (at least those running OS X Lion, unless you feel like jumping through hoops to make it work on Snow Leopard) to create very pretty books. Great...nice job putting a user-friendly tool into teachers' and content experts' hands.
I think Audrey Watters probably said it best over on Hack Education:
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...
There isn't a week that goes by that I don't talk with schools and teachers about our tendency to apply a thin veneer of technology to the same old pedagogies and call it "21st Century Learning." Unfortunately, that's precisely what Apple has done here. Deliver pretty, interactive books from major publishers. Sure, they've also allowed teachers to potentially create their own e-book content (and other authors for that matter), but, as others have reported, the EULA for iBooks Author and terms around created content are just painfully obvious in their attempts at Apple lock-in and removal of intellectual property rights that Apple probably shouldn't have bothered. No matter how easy it is to produce compelling content in iBooks Author, its lack of consideration for authors and students ensures that I will never use it beyond the testing I did.
And don't even get me started on the price of the books or on DRM. At their intro price of $15 a piece, for a brief second the eTexts from the big publishers sounded almost too good to be true. Remember what they say about things that sound too good to be true? That's right. They usually are. In this case, the one advantage of dead tree books goes away, namely the potential cost savings found by sharing or rotating books among sections and subsequent years of students. In the case of these books, every student who needs to access a copy needs a license. There are no options for volume or shared licenses. There is no way to transfer licenses. Publishers (and Apple) will once again make out like bandits and eBooks will end up costing schools more than their dead tree equivalents, despite the promise of exactly the opposite. And, of course, there's the cost of the iPads required to read these oh-so-pretty books. Again, I defer to Audrey Watters:
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?
I think the latter is actually the most likely.
Perhaps most telling are the user comments in the Mac App Store. Scattered among the glowing reviews of the Apple faithful (before the flames start, by the way, bear in mind that I'm writing this on a MacBook Pro, connected to the web via my Airport Extreme, with no less than five other Apple devices in my house that see heavy use every day) are some much rougher opinions:
"This is totally useless as far as science textbooks are concerned..."
"Arbitrary limitations make an otherwise nice app disappointing"
"Output limitations make it a *no-go*
"No Snow Leopard Support? Really, Apple?"
"Great idea ruined..."
So, back to my original question. How does this affect the eTextbook industry? Actually, its lack of expected awesomeness means that the industry remains wide open for a company (or companies) that actually gets what educator-generated content should be. Teachers are, in theory, subject matter experts who should be more than capable of pulling together educational resources and creating a book (or wiki, or whatever) that caters to their students' needs and the particular curricula upon which a school has agreed. This is where every company from CK12 to Inkling to Kno (and, believe it or not, to Pearson) to all of those startups just waiting to make sure that Apple wasn't going to steal their thunder and business models comes in.
Apple has done us all a huge favor here. There aren't many people with an iPad who aren't thinking that maybe, just maybe, they could put together a book. The more educators understand that there are ways to make sure students have the educational content they need with being chained to expensive dead tree books, the better we all are. I had the chance to talk on Friday with Osman Rashid, co-founder and CEO of Kno. While he noted that Apple's announcement centered on K12 education while his company deals primarily with eTextbooks for higher ed, what Apple really did was elevate the profile of eTextbooks and the need for innovation in the field.
It's quite clear that there is plenty of room for competition here. More importantly, there is a huge amount of room for innovation and tools that are as accessible as iBooks but drastically more open. As Rashid pointed out, now that we are approaching agency pricing on electronic texts, companies will have to compete on their products rather than the pricing they can deliver. I would argue that a big part of this will be the ability to achieve much lower costs by incorporating open educational resources and teacher-generated content.
Kirsten Winkler and I spent a fair amount of time talking about this during our weekly review:ed podcast on Friday and had some great insights from Dave Schappell, founder of Teachstreet.
Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a...
Christopher Dawson is the owner and principle consultant for tekedu.net, formerly 6geeks.net, formerly 2D Business Services. Obviously this little company has evolved over the years, first as a side job consulting for local biotechs and ultimately becoming an umbrella for consulting and writing work related to educational technology. He spent 2 years as Vice President of Business Development for WizIQ, Inc., heading up US operations for the Indian company; he still consults for them. He has worked for his local school district as a teacher and technology director, for the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, and for Biogen, Inc. (now Biogen-IDEC, Inc.). He has also consulted with STATNet and Cytyc Corporation and retains close ties with X2 Development Corporation (now part of Follett Software, the supplier of the student information system he administered for several years), including occasional activities that involve some sort of honorarium. However, he promises that if he writes about anything interesting they do, it's because it's interesting and not because they tossed him a few hundred bucks a while back.
He regularly purchases and/or recommends Dell hardware. This is because Dell makes good hardware and has truly committed itself to education in innovative ways, particularly with their "Connected Classroom" initiative. It isn't because he has had dealings with the company through his role at WizIQ (which he has) or because they have provided him with long-term loans of a variety of equipment for in-depth testing (which they have). HP gets nods from him, too; they have similarly provided him with equipment on long-term loan and their workstations rock out loud, so they deserve the coverage.
He actually buys Apple equipment because they don't send him free stuff and he has a nasty Apple habit that he can't help feeding occasionally.
Intel (reference designer for the Classmate PCs he has implemented in his local schools) has provided him with long-term loans of Classmate PCs for testing, as as has Lenovo with its educational offerings. Intel paid all expenses for his attendance at the 2009 Intel Classmate PC Ecosystem Summit which he attended as the sole representative of the technology press. He was invited to attend in 2010 but his wife would have killed him if he spent 3 days in Vegas geeking out and left her home alone with a new baby.
And Google? Well, he has more than one Chromebook provided as preview units and runs his consulting business with Google Apps (in fact, he has 5 different domains tied to Google Apps, one of which he actually pays for to use Google Apps for Business).
Acer provided him with a 50% discount on an Aspire One netbook in early 2009 after he tested it for 30 days through their educational seed program. He liked the netbook at the time but it has since broken and sits unused in his office. Canonical sent him Ubuntu lanyards, t-shirts, and mousepads for his kids. He stole one of the lanyards and proudly hangs his keys from it and occasionally features his 8-year old wearing an oversized Ubuntu t-shirt on his Facebook profile.
Gunnar Optiks sent him a pair of computer glasses to evaluate for a holiday gift guide. He is wearing them now as he types this because they never asked for them back and they rock out loud, too. Seriously - they work brilliantly and make it much easier to spend 20 hours a day staring at an LCD. If they ever asked for them back, he would fork over the $99 and buy a pair.He even convinced his mom to buy him a pair of their sunglasses for his birthday.
Microsoft gave him 2 free copies of Office 2010 professional, a desktop clock, and a useless book on Office 2010 when he attended the launch of Office/Sharepoint 2010. He occasionally uses the SharePoint lanyard they gave him instead of the Ubuntu lanyard for his keys, but feels dirty afterwards.
Blackboard paid him to be a keynote speaker at their 2012 Developers Conference but then went and bought a bunch of open source companies, bumped him from the program so they could explain why they would do such a thing, and he got to keep the cash, all for covering the event for a day. It was bloody hot and humid in New Orleans, so he earned every cent.
Adobe has given him lots of software and more than a couple free lunches at various conferences. Like the Gunnars, he would actually buy a Creative Cloud subscription if his free licenses on CS6/Creative Cloud run out because he couldn't do his job without them and CS6 (yes, I'm going to say it again) rocks out loud. Seriously. $50/month for Creative Cloud is a third of what he'd be willing to pay for it. Which is saying something, because he's actually pretty cheap.
Any other companies wishing to send him cool things to evaluate, wear, or otherwise adorn his kids are more than welcome to; he promises to disclose it here if he keeps any of the stuff.
And speaking of free stuff, Tuf-Luv has sent him enough free stuff to cover just about every tablet, phone, and laptop he's ever owned. That said, when his dog destroyed one of the cases and the Motorola Xoom inside it survived without a slobber mark, he went out and actually bought a new one. Same goes for an iPad he gave away as part of a contest he ran with WizIQ - he (meaning his corporate Amex) actually bought a Tuff-Luv case because (you guessed it) they rock out loud.
He may report on any of these companies as his experiences with them have direct bearing on educational technology, Google, cloud services, etc; positive reports are not necessarily an endorsement and he receives no direct financial compensation from these companies or any others.
He's pretty sure that's it. If he thinks of anything else, he'll be sure to tell you all about it here. By the way, he also writes for lots of other publications, but pretty much just about SMB stuff, so it doesn't really much matter. The writing and broadcasting he does for Edukwest (not surprisingly, ed tech-related) usually gets cross-posted to ZDNet, so that's all good too.