Textbooks on iPad: A Broken Promise?

A couple of weeks ago, this happened on Twitter:

While I’m pretty meh on his new album, Kanye’s tweets did remind of an Apple event and initiative that feels older than it really is.

In January 2012, in New York City, Apple held a small event to discuss textbooks and the iPad.

Apple built the case that American students are falling behind due to a wide range of challenges that the lack of modern tools and technology could address. In a world of laptops and smart phones at home, the classroom felt out of date, according to the company. Student engagement, Phil Schiller said, was an area that Apple could help with using its products.

The iPad had been out for less than two years, but was already in use in some classrooms. The iBookstore had textbooks and other education materials for sale, but there was no real support for teachers or administrators wanting to leverage the iPad in new ways.

In the event, Apple laid out two initiatives.

Reinventing Textbooks: iBooks Author

Schiller argued that textbooks weren’t ideal in our modern world in what may be my favorite slide Apple has ever used during an event:

The iPad was portable, durable, interactive, searchable and could show new and fresh content, but until this event, there wasn’t a great way to get educational content onto the iPad.

Enter iBooks Author.

A clear offshoot of the iWork applications, iBooks Author is a Mac OS X application that allowed for the design and assembly of iPad textbooks. Text content could be enhanced with videos, photo tours and widgets. Students could highlight content, make notes and create flashcards. All of this was searchable, and easily scannable thanks to navigation complete with page thumbnails.

Books created in iBookstore could be downloaded from the iBookstore right alongside books from mainstream publishers. To keep prices down, Apple made iBooks Author free, and imposed a $14.99 price ceiling for textbooks in the Store.

This application allowed anyone to create a book, and I think the hope was that schools and teachers would create custom-built books for their classrooms. Of course, Apple also announced partnerships with major textbook publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and McGraw Hill.

I don’t think this plan has worked out quite as well as Apple had hoped. iBooks Author has been used by all sorts of people on all sorts of things, but in talking with Fraser Speirs, the entire idea has a critical flaw at its center:

The iPad is far too valuable in the classroom to lock it up as a textbook.

Speirs — who deployed and runs the world’s first whole-school 1:1 iPad program — went on to point out that while textbooks are expensive here in the United States, that’s not true everywhere around the world. While cheap textbooks may help offset the cost of an iPad for us, it’s just not true elsewhere.

Over the years, Apple has made its book and device management tools more robust, but they are far from perfect. Most notably, iBooks Author hasn’t evolved as much as some would like. Here is Speirs again:

iBooks Author hasn’t taken off like we expected. I suspect in part because it runs on a Mac and most schools worldwide don’t have Macs, but do have iOS devices. iBooks Author should really be on iOS.

It’s surprising to me that iBooks Author has not made the jump to iOS, especially with the introduction of the iPad Pro. It seems like such a natural fit, but my guess is that Cupertino has deprioritized development on the tool since the program isn’t as important as its iWork siblings.

Textbooks on the iPad was just one part of the story, however, and the second one is much more popular with educators like Speirs.

Reinventing Curriculum: iTunes U

iTunes U is a much harder platform to describe than iBooks Author. It existed before this event as a way for educators to share audio and video of their lessons with people via the iTunes Store. The company boasted 700 million downloads at the time of the event.

At this event, Apple launched iTunes U as an iPad app. Educators could now publish entire online courses, albeit in a design that looks much older than its 4 years:

Students — or anyone in the world with an iPad, really — could use go through an entire course, with content from iBooks Author books, custom videos, audio, PDFs and more. iTunes U gathered notes from books and other sources all in one place, acting as a complete hub for a digital course.

iTunes U is still around, and has expanded to include support for homework, private discussions, grading and more. “iTunes U goes from strength to strength,” Speirs told me. “It’s something I depend on every day to manage my classroom.”

The Path Forward

Apple has always held education in high regard. As far back as the Apple II, the company has worked hard to puts its products in the hands of children to enhance their education experiences.

Today, however, the company is in a fight for the classroom. With low-cost Chromebooks, Google is making great inroads across the country’s classrooms.

With iOS 9.3, Apple is firing back, adding to its tools to make the iPad a better citizen in schools. I believe education is still near to the heart of Apple, and I’m sure they’ll keep working to improve their offerings in the space. They’ve come a long way since 2012, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure their dream of digital textbooks will ever come true.