NEW YORK CITY -- Apple made its much-anticipated move on the education technology industry on Thursday, announcing a revamped version of its iTunes U platform  that could challenge traditional learning management systems. It also unveiled new tools for creating and distributing low-cost digital textbooks that could speed the pace of e-text adoption.
But the company's moves largely avoided direct challenges to publishers and other technology companies, and was widely seen as a strategic play to make the iPad a must-have in classrooms.
The company's new iTunes U platform is designed to help instructors push assignments to students, while enabling students to retrieve and check off assignments as they complete them. “Full online courses” -- which include PDF documents, videos, presentations, and interactive syllabuses that serve as gateways to readings and assignment sequences -- are available free in the iTunes U library.
Phil Schiller, a senior vice president at Apple, said the idea was to enable “anyone anywhere at any time to take courses for free.”
About 100 such “courses” were created for iTunes U in advance of Thursday’s unveiling. Professors at high-profile institutions such as Duke, Yale and Stanford Universities were among the first contributors. (See related article on how professors at Duke and Harrisburg Area Community College responded.)
The company also heralded a new breed of low-cost, high-quality digital textbooks. And it introduced a suite of tools, called iBooks Author , which instructors can use to build and share their own iBooks alongside publishers' titles.
The new authoring tools are free. The new iBooks , which are optimized for the iPad, will retail for no more than $15, including titles from commercial publishers. The first publisher versions, from Pearson and McGraw-Hill, focus on basic algebra, biology, chemistry, geometry and environmental science.
Unlike those publishers’ existing e-textbooks, which allow students to access their content only for a limited period of time, the students own their iBooks forever, according to Roger Rosner, Apple’s vice president for productivity software.
Apple’s new education offerings, which the company unveiled at a characteristically hyped-up event at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (which was intensely covered by the news media, including Inside Higher Ed ), are designed to integrate with one another in a seamless, intuitive way that the company insists will “reinvent” how instructors create and share course materials.
Bradley Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana University and a business professor, says he thinks the new tools represent an attempt by Apple to “own the entire user experience, end to end”: from the software that experts use to produce learning materials to the platform authors and publishers use to distribute them to the hardware students use to consume them.
During Thursday’s event, Apple tacitly boasted that it already offers the tools to create a lot of the multimedia objects -- such as iPhoto, iMovie and Keynote -- that instructors could embed in the iBooks and iTunes U courses they might create.
Several observers saw Thursday’s announcements as an attempt by Apple to increase the value proposition of the iPad as an essential accessory of the modern student.
During and after the event, Apple officials demonstrated how cool a digital textbook designed specifically for the iPad can be. Rosner showed how students can highlight words and passages with their fingers -- and how the iBook will then automatically create glossaries, study guides and flashcards based on those annotations. (Inadequate annotating tools have been identified a barrier  for e-reader adoption in the past.)
“I don’t think a textbook ever made it this easy to be a good student,” Rosner said.
Apple’s foray into educational content reportedly grew from the desire of Steve Jobs, the company’s late founder, to upend the textbook with a killer digital alternative. But the fact that iPad ownership is so crucial to using Apple’s new offerings could limit their impact on the market, says Phil Hill, executive director of the Delta Initiative, an education technology consulting firm.
“If [one] accepts the fact that you have to be on the iPad, then what they presented today was a pretty compelling vision,” said Hill in an interview. “But because this is iPad-dependent, I think there are major segments of higher education where the impact of this might not be felt for several years,” he said.
Some institutions have tried seeding their campuses with iPads. But only 9 percent of students at four-year colleges owned the popular computing tablets as of fall 2011, according to Student Monitor, a consumer research firm.
The ‘Secret LMS’
The fact that Apple’s new tools might be only worthwhile to students and professors who use iPads should come as a relief to companies that sell online learning platforms, said Hill.
A number of observers noted how much the new iTunes U platform -- where instructors can embed multimedia objects, build courses and push iBooks to students -- resembled a learning management system. (In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Jill Ambrose, the chief marketing officer for CourseSmart, referred to it as a “secret LMS.”)
Apple itself did not frame the platform in those terms. But those course-related organizational tools fit into a recent trend toward a new category  of education software that provides cloud-based, LMS-like features free for students and instructors, said Hill.
He pointed to Coursekit , Nixty, and Pearson’s OpenClass. “All have certain limitations,” Hill explained. “But if you look at long-term possibilities I think they’re going to change the definitions or assumptions we have for education technology.”
Asked to comment on Apple's announcement and the possible implications for the LMS market, Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn, said he did not view it as a threat to his company's leading product.
"It may have some features that sound like an LMS," he said, "but there are some important requirements that aren't met to consider it a direct competitor." Henderson emphasized the persisting demand for platforms that can be deployed institution-wide and hooked into student information and records-management systems.
"This effort seems more complementary than competitive," he said. "What seems more likely is that iTunes U and the products within it will be used alongside Blackboard."
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