Textbook of the Future: The challenges

It's actually cheaper to go to another planet than to give an iPad to every child.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

This month, Apple dropped a bombshell on the academic community by introducing iBooks Textbooks and iBooks Author. In combination, the two create a compelling framework for re-engineering the textbook in electronic form for K-12 students, permitting for rich color educational content and possibly an entirely new textbook ecosystem that could be made accessible to tens of millions of schoolchildren.

The problems with Apple’s daring textbook plan are twofold. First, in that the iPad as a hardware platform is completely unsuitable to the needs of schoolchildren and schools, not just from an initial capitalization factor but also from a durability one.

Second, legitimate concerns with the company's "walled garden" aside, is that the iPad lacks the type of software management ecosystem that is required to host and deploy an entire curriculum of schoolwork for thousands of American schools and millions of K-12 students.

I discussed at length with my ZDNet Education colleague Chris Dawson exactly what type of hardware and software and back-end infrastructure would be required, and the conclusion we came to is that the scale of the problem that we are trying to solve is monumental.

Also Read (By Christopher Dawson)

How monumental are we talking? Space program sized.

If we do some back of the envelope calculations using the iPad as a reference device, assuming full retail pricing ($500.00) as a baseline, and we multiply it by the number of students that attend preschool through 12th grade annually (approximately 55.5 million according to the US Census) then we get a whopping $27.5B hardware cost to equip every child attending school with an iPad.

That’s $27.5 billion, and that is an estimated hardware cost for a device that would have best case scenario an expected lifetime of two years when put through the rigors of daily use by schoolchildren.

I say best-case scenario because only the most careful children will keep the device in good working order for that time, and the least careful would likely render it inoperable in a fraction of that.

Now, assuming that Apple can provide iPad 2 or a similarly capable iOS device at a generous 20 percent educational discount, maybe a little bit higher, we can knock $7.5 billion off of that two year cost. So let’s say conservatively $20B for two years.

Where this $20B would actually come from is hard to say. I believe that funding this entirely as a government-sponsored effort paid for by our tax dollars is highly unrealistic. At best, it would probably end up being a half parent/government proposition, and even that would be difficult to sell to lower class families, many of which are living below the poverty line.

And arguably, while I’m not factoring in the possibility that Apple could get consumer refurbished iPads into the hands of schoolchildren a bit cheaper, as well as iPads are selling, I don’t think the recycling rate is going to be high enough to allow for more than a quarter of all of those devices targeted towards public schools to be cheaper refurb iPads coming out of the Apple Outlet pool.

The problem is that any electronic textbook program would have to be a ten to twelve year commitment at bare minimum in order to send a single generation of kids through elementary and high school.

So now the magnitude of the problem is quite evident.

You’d really be looking at $100B to do this with Apple technology, for just the hardware for a 10 to 12 year commitment. Even if you could get government to subsidize half the cost of this, assuming a generous discount on Apple’s part,  you’re looking at $50B of government money and $50B that families are going to be expected to cough up as well. For just the hardware.

In case you were wondering, the recently proposed manned moon program for the 2020’s at NASA was budgeted at around $38B. To put that in perspective, the 1960’s Apollo program valued in 2012 dollars was around $100B, give or take a few billion.

And manned Mars programs have been estimated in the last five years at around $80-$100B for the first several seed missions before establishing a permanent colony.

In summary, it’s actually cheaper to go to another planet than to give an iPad to every child.

Any way you look at it, the cost of just getting the iPad hardware into the hands of children is staggering. And the more you analyze it, the more you realize how uniquely unsuited Apple is to the task of actually pulling it off.

And as to the e-Texts themselves? If you’ve read James Kendrick’s earlier piece and understand the fine print about how Apple intends to sell the actual e-texts to schools, we know this will never work based on how local school systems procure textbooks today. The model they have established is completely nonsensical.

Essentially, Apple is asking for schools to buy large vouchers for volume textbook purchases by which coupons will be handed out to individual students to buy texts at $14.99 apiece. Once purchased, the student owns the textbook, and it cannot be passed down to another student.

The entire idea is absurd, because it eliminates the concept of textbooks as school assets that are reuseable. A typical $50-$75 textbook today is expected to have a life of at least five to ten years before replacement. While the textbook publishers enter contracts with schools to replace them periodically with new editions, many systems often struggle to come up with the funds to do so.

The Apple iBooks Textbooks sales model as it stands today is designed to benefit only the absolute wealthiest of school systems. And it also stands to benefit the traditional textbook publishers more than it does the schools themselves.

So we have to ask ourselves that even at half the cost, or even at a quarter of the cost of Apple’s iPad and iBooks Textbooks, are electronic textbooks still a solution looking for a problem?

Indeed, many American public schools face tremendous challenges today for funding basic needs, not just textbooks. And traditionally, they have always given our kids just enough to get by, and will try to do more with less.

Only the best funded school systems can afford good textbooks and the best teachers and the best facilities. That’s still not going to change with proposing iPads for every child. We have to fix the problems endemic to the entire education system itself before even thinking about re-engineering the textbook.

Is the notion creating electronic textbooks really benefiting the schools and the children or is this something a bunch of people completely detached from reality cooked up in Cupertino for children living in Palo Alto when they really should be looking at the situation in places like Compton?

Because if we can’t make it work for the most disadvantaged of communities and school systems, we can’t make this work at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a futurist and a technologist, the idea of giving American children enabling technology to help them learn and become more competitive with the rest of the world is a powerful one.

But I think we seriously need to get back to the drawing board before we can think about re-inventing the textbook for the 21st century.

In my next piece, I’ll talk a bit how we might begin to accomplish that, from a hardware perspective.

Do you believe an iPad for every child is a realistic and sensible goal, or do we need to completely re-evaluate what educators and schools actually need to secure the educational future for our children? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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