In a special press conference in New York on Tuesday, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller announced the free iBooks 2 app, an attempt to unify online databases and the printed word into a single educational tool.
With rich, engaging content and powerful annotation capabilities, digital textbooks will help American students better compete with peers abroad, Schiller said.
Though many teachers have embraced the company's iPad and thousands of education apps available for it, adoption has been limited in scope, Schiller said. A formal platform to obtain this kind of content will accelerate adoption.
DIGITAL TEXTBOOKS: MORE DYNAMIC
On the presentation side, a digital textbook can be compelling. Schiller demonstrated how a portrait layout can help the student focus on text, while a landscape layout can help him or her focus on multimedia content, such as interactive photos or animations.
See a term you don't understand? You can click on it for more information, just like you can on an e-book reader. That's something physical textbooks don't allow for, Schiller said. (Ditto the ability to highlight passages and instantly make digital flash cards from your own notes, both of which he demonstrated.)
A new "textbooks" category in iBooks is the seed for Apple's new venture. Best of all, students can own the book forever, and download it any time from the cloud. (No word on how updates -- long the moneymaker for the industry -- will be priced.) And it goes without saying that a digital textbook won't weigh a ton.
ONE FOR THE PUBLISHERS
As for content creators, a new, free iBooks Author app allows you to create interactive e-books. The application has a drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface and default templates (math, science) so it's easy to get existing content into the cloud. It also has a one-click glossary function.
But perhaps the biggest shift in the industry will be around pricing and distribution. Schiller said new high school textbooks would be priced at $14.99 or less -- and they're always up-to-date. (No word on college-level and above.)
Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Dorling Kindersley are among Apple's publishing partners, and their products (Algebra 1, Environmental Science, etc.) are available in the store today.
Which begs the question: will high school students now have to pay for their textbooks? Or does Apple envision a future where school-provided iPads, preloaded with e-textbooks, are deployed?
Finally, Apple's iTunes U service -- a neat offering of university lectures-as-podcasts buried in the iTunes Store -- will get a leg up. Through an update, the iTunes U app will offer a spot for a syllabus, course material, office hours info and more within a single iOS app. It even allows for professor-to-student messaging.
In other words: a complete digital course resource -- no more Microsoft Word attachments via e-mail, and no more web-based solutions like Blackboard. (Which begs yet another question: Apple may have a leg up on mobile here, but are universities really willing to let go of their existing platforms?)
For now it comes down to adoption. Yale, MIT, Duke, Stanford and others are already on iTunes U; it remains to be seen whether other universities (and K-12 institutions, for that matter) will follow suit, given the new capabilities.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, this all depends on adoption of the iPad. Institutions and individuals alike already love them. Will these new tools make them love them enough to replace, rather than augment, their current setups?