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.