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How Apple is working to keep its education push on course

From e-textbooks to online courses, Apple's education efforts go back decades -- but now it's using other approaches to bolster its classroom strategy.

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Students use a multi-touch textbook and an iTunes course about the origins of World War I devised by teacher Gwen Vergouwen, along with Europeana and Apple's Educators in Residence scheme. Image: Gwen Vergouwen/Europeana

E-books and online courses have their critics, but those technologies remain the focus of Apple's continued push to create innovative tools and services for teachers and students.

By giving educators tools that print publishers can't easily rival, Apple's e-textbooks and online course services aim to offer an edge over traditional educational materials, even though recent data shows e-books aren't drastically affecting the traditional print publishing industry.

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Content-management company Publishing Technology reported that US and UK millennials prefer reading print books to e-books. Moreover, the Association of American Publishers has registered an 8.5 percent increase in paperback book sales over the first five months of this year, while e-book sales declined 10 percent in the same period, when compared with a year ago.

In 2013, Apple lost an antitrust case in which a New York district court found the company had conspired to raise the price of e-books in violation of the Sherman Act.

The question remains whether Apple's efforts to encourage e-textbook use in the classroom will affect the habits of the next generation of technology consumers, who are now under 18 years of age.

One tactic Apple is using is its Distinguished Educators (ADEs) in Residence program, which pairs technology-driven teachers with cultural institutions.

The program is Apple's dedicated pipeline for transferring knowledge directly from the world's cultural institutions and into school textbooks and coursework.

Last month, a Belgian history teacher launched a Multi-Touch textbook and an iTunes course about the origins of World War I with Europeana, the European Union's digital cultural heritage archive. The teacher, Gwen Vergouwen, and Europeana worked together as part of the ADEs in Residence program.

Europeana's executive director Jill Cousins said in a statement: "The ADE program provides an excellent framework, connecting cultural heritage institutions and teachers and enabling them to share expertise, content and new technologies for the benefit of educators and students."

Vergouwen's affinity for using Apple tools in his classroom was the key factor in Apple accepting him into the Apple Distinguished Educator community. He joins more than 2,000 educators around the world who engage with their students using Apple tools and services.

Through the program, Vergouwen learned how he could bring Europeana's digitized photos, artwork and documents directly into his students' hands, on their in-class iPads.

From May to October, Vergouwen, Europeana and EUROCLIO (the European Association of History Teacher) integrated Europeana's World War I catalogue into a digital textbook and online course using an array of software, among which were Apple tools.

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Students see Europeana's digitized photos, artwork and documents on their in-class iPads. Image: Vergouwen/Europeana

Vergouwen used iBooks Author to create the textbook, while a designer from Apple produced a visual template to match Europeana's brand guidelines. Vergouwen created the bulk of the interactive widgets: the interactive maps, slideshows and integrated movies.

He used the iTunes U Course Manager to devise the online course. For integrated worksheets and spreadsheets, Vergouwen used Popplet, PDF Expert 5, Apple's Numbers and Evernote's Skitch.

"Through using unique primary sources from Europeana and EUROCLIO, the Multi-Touch Book enhances students' historical thinking, and nourishes their needs as digitally-native learners," Vergouwen said.

Apple's involvement in the educational world spans decades. School districts began purchasing Mac desktop computers for new student computer labs in the 1980s.

Now, schools are shifting from maintaining stand-alone computer labs to offering tablets to their students. In 2012, Apple reported that schools in more than 600 US districts purchased iPads for their students.

In the US alone, educational technology is a growing $8bn market. Apple stands to compete with other mobile device makers, such as Samsung and Amazon, to maintain a foothold in this niche educational market.

Over the past few years, Amazon has been steadily increasing support for educational Kindle apps for children. This year, it launched its own textbook creator for the Kindle. Also this year, Samsung released its Galaxy Tab 4 Education tablet, which can connect to a virtual reality headset.

Apple hopes to bolster consumer demand for iPads and OS X systems by encouraging their use in the classroom. At the same time, the company's strategy is to open up a new generation of students to concepts and devices that could positively change future thinking on ed-tech.

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