A GarageBand for Textbooks?

Speculation runs rampant about Apple's education announcement in New York on Thursday. Let's connect the digital dots.

January 17, 2012

Publishers, the press, and pundits will be gathered in NYC on Thursday morning at the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue for an “education announcement” from Apple.

Speculation runs rampant about the impending announcement, fueled in part by several comments in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that the Apple CEO “set his sights on textbooks as the next industry he wanted to transform,” seeing it as “an $8 billion a year industry that was ripe for digital destruction.” Isaacson reports that Jobs wanted “save the spines of ravaged students bearing backpacks by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad…. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions and make them a feature on the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple.”

Jobs’ comments about textbooks appear to focus on the K-12 market:  “the process by which the states certify textbooks is corrupt … but if we can make textbooks free, and they come with an iPad, then they don’t have to be certified.” But as noted in a Digital Tweed post last week, expectations for the role of digital texts are also high in the higher ed market.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “observers aren’t expecting a new gadget” from Apple but instead the “company is expected to unveil textbooks optimized for the iPad and that feature ways to interact with the content, as well as partnerships with publishers.”

A more detailed report from Wired, also published on Tuesday and titled “Apple To Announce Tools, Platform To ‘Digitally Destroy’ Textbook Publishing” cited sources close to the matter confirming that “Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books—the ‘GarageBand for e-books,’ so to speak—and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.”

My hyperactive inference engine is trying to connect the very digital, very virtual dots ahead of the Apple’s announcement. Here’s what emerges: Apple's strengths have been in distribution (witness iTunes) and carefully targeted, well-crafted "semi-pro" tools such as Garageband and iPhoto that enable non-techies (“civilians”) to produce (and share) really interesting stuff. Education has been a special beneficiary of Apple’s expertise. Consider college lectures: recording lectures has always been easy. It was the iPod and iTunes that helped to resolve the larger challenges of simple cataloging and distribution to both on-campus users and off-campus audiences. (Bored with Bach, the Boss, or Lady Gaga as the background music for your time at the gym? iTunes offers thousands of lectures on hundreds of topics to help improve your mind as your workout improves your body.)

So let’s assume that Wired got it right and the Thursday announcement is about tools -- "a GarageBand for textbook development." Who benefits? Based on the comments in the Jobs biography and Apple’s history, one major beneficiary might be the Open Education Resources Movement -- an effort to create free or low-cost textbooks and supporting curricular resources. 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. 

K-12 teachers and college faculty would be able to post modules (chapters, eTexts, and interactive stuff) on the new “iBook College Cloud,” and then set their own prices: as with the App Store, low prices (and good reviews) generate large volumes and interesting revenue.  It's back to the future with a focus on enabling tools and an enabling distribution infrastructure.  

One really interesting question here is vetting: will Apple (or some agent acting on Apple's behalf) review these new curriculum modules much as Apple reviews and approves everything that gets posted to the App Store?

A second really interesting question involves the role of the traditional textbook providers. The Wall Street Journal reports that “McGraw-Hill Cos., Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are among the education-publishing companies most likely affected by an Apple textbook announcement…. McGraw-Hill has been working with Apple on its announcement since June” and Cengage Learning will be attending Thursday’s gathering. No word from the Journal if Pearson, cited in the Jobs biography, will be in the crowd (or on stage) on Thursday morning. 

Will the Apple announcement provide yet another distribution channel for current content for textbook publishers? Or will textbook providers bring enhanced, value (and technology)-added course materials to the new iText/iTune Course Materials distribution channel? Inquiring minds want to know!

There is some history here. In the late 1980s, Apple did a deal with Kinko's to help promote the Kinko's Academic Courseware Exchange. It was a distribution channel for faculty who created course modules, templates, and “widgets” on their Macs.

Admittedly, if my inference engine is anywhere near correct, this is a long-term play for Apple and its partners. But Apple thinks long term.

So what pops from your inference engine?   Does Apple have a real opportunity to disrupt the textbook market? If so, which one: K-12? Higher Ed? Maybe both? 

Please join me on Friday to review the Apple announcement, the comments from the press, pundits, and publishers, and to score the accuracy of my inference engine.


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