Apple Reinvents Textbooks

The Inference Engine anticipated much of what Apple announced in NYC on Thursday.  Some interesting questions remain.

January 19, 2012

Earlier this week the Digital Tweed Inference Engine attempted to connect the very digital, very virtual dots leading into Apple’s  “education event” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York: “Imagine new curricular content created with the new Apple tool(s) that can be easily uploaded into an iTunes-like distribution channel: what emerges is lots of new stuff that is easily accessed on a very large, well-cataloged, easily searched, low cost, cloud-based distribution platform."

And now we know: the Inference Engine did pretty well.  On Thursday Apple announced a new textbook authoring tool (iBook Author) and an enhanced distribution channel (the iTunes U app).  At the risk of shameless self-promotion, below is the scorecard for the key issues that emerged from the Inference Engine, and what we heard from  Apple on Thursday.

There is much to like in the new Apple applications for education.  Extending the digital hub strategy announced by Steve Jobs some years ago, Apple has brought forth new tools that enable non-techies to create and distribute engaging content.  In this instance, the focus has moved from consumer applications (my photos, my videos, my music) to education (my child’s classroom).   Apple’s goal, stated explicitly in Phil Schiller's opening comments on Thursday, is to help reinvent textbooks – to be a catalyst in the movement from printed tomes to engaging, value- added and technology-enhanced digital curricular content.  And as was also stated explicitly during Thursday’s presentation, the initial target is high school textbooks.

As would be expected, the iTunes U launch is accompanied by lots of interesting stuff from both commercial publishers and also colleges and universities.  You can purchase what appear to be low-cost workbooks and course materials from commercial publishers and also access free, complete  courses from a wide range of colleges and universities

Interestingly, the Apple iBook Author launch comes a day after the widespread Web protest against Congressional legislation to curb Internet piracy.  Some of the most contested parts of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate involve the responsibilities of web site operators (Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and presumably iTunes U, among others) to remove access to or links to copyrighted content.

So the copyright question that emerges is who will be responsible for vetting content and securing permissions for the stunning images, informative diagrams, and engaging simulations that I imbed in the Widgets book that I submit to iTunes U.  Will I have to sign an affidavit affirming that I have secured permission for all third-party content in my new Widgets book?  Will Apple help me secure the permissions?  Will Apple take down my Widgets tome if a copyright holder claims infringement?  (In addition to my Widgets tome I am now working on an iBook/iText about copyright issues for educators.)

Also looming is the question of posting content to iTunes U.  Mindful of the success of the App store in enabling thousands of developers to create hundreds of thousands of iPhone and iPad apps, Apple executives no doubt hope that the iBook Author app and the iTunes U distribution channel (the latter now opened to submissions from K-12 teachers) will launch a thousand or more Salman Khans, each and all posting lots of engaging K-12 and college-level curricular content to iTunes U.

But Apple keeps a very tight rein on iPhone and iPod apps in the App Store: some of the vetting is for quality control, some to keep out “inappropriate” content (e.g., porn).   Will Apple exercise the same kind of control over curricular materials submitted to iTunes U from individual teachers and college professors?  What happens if (when?) Apple receives a well-designed iBook (iText) on creationism or intelligent design?  Will Apple assume a content-neutral position, or will Apple decide that the module is “inappropriate” for iTunes U?

And what about the money?  The App Store has allowed thousands of small developers to make money selling inexpensive iPhone and iPad apps.  Will this business model apply to the efforts of individual K-12 teachers and college faculty who use the iBook author to develop curricular materials posted on iTunes U?

Over time we will no doubt hear more from Apple executives and others about copyright, content, and money matters.  We will also need time – at least two years – to begin to assess the impact of Apple’s efforts to reinvent textbooks.

Disclosure:  Apple is a corporate sponsor of The Campus Computing Project.


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