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On Hack Education, Audrey Watters has a fairly long look at why Apple’s new textbook announcement may not be as revolutionary as expected. She was not impressed by Apple’s presentation, stating it lacked Steve Jobs’s magic touch, “the kind of thing that made both fans and skeptics say, ‘Yes, (perhaps) this changes everything.’” She points out that Apple is partnering with the three companies that already make up 90% of the textbook industry, and they have already gotten into digital textbooks (to the tune of $3 billion last year by just one of them).

One of the things that digital content makes obvious is that the current physical manifestation of a print-bound textbook is a strangely awful construct — one designed to remove students one step (at least one step) from the primary sources that inform the field they’re studying. You don’t read Darwin; you read "Introduction to Biology." You don’t read de Tocqueville; you read "American History I." Sure, textbooks offer easier-to-digest summaries of the content, geared to the particular grade level of the student. They offer diagrams and illustrations and review questions and a glossary. But textbooks are always an assembly from a variety of sources, geared towards a classroom setting where the teacher leads students through the chapters and the exercises and the examinations. Neither the teacher nor the student is expected to be an expert. You just need to know enough to pass the test.

Digitizing that model of instruction changes nothing. Adding video changes nothing. Pinch and zoom and flashcards change nothing.

As for Apple’s $14.99 per student per year model for high school textbooks, Watters points out that a lot of high schools don’t buy new textbooks every year anyway, and if you look at that $14.99 per year as replacing an only slightly more expensive book that lasted several years, it may not be such a good deal after all.

And as for giving students their own permanent e-copy of the material, what student really ever wanted to keep a copy of his high school textbooks, anyway? And even if they had, taking advantage of it is still going to require getting those students their own iPads, an expensive (and currently far from universally-achieved) proposition.

She also has a few words for the iBooks Author e-book-making app, and its much-maligned license that restricts authors from selling their books through any other outlet than Apple. Apart from being restrictive, and providing no way to mark books that she wants to give away for free with a Creative Commons license, she notes that it is ultimately unnecessary—educators are already able to build their own digital textbooks, albeit without as “slick” tools as iBooks Author.

In the end, Watters writes, Apple’s digital textbook announcement is not the kind of revolution previously expected of Apple—it’s more of the same old same old, and “a slap in the face to educators and students.”

It really sounds like Apple set out to solve the wrong problem with this announcement, focusing on high schools when the real problem, and the much faster move toward e (since college students are more able to afford tablets), is college textbooks. It will be interesting to see what kind of deal Apple can offer them. But I can certainly see Watters’s point of view here—for high schools, this is not the sort of world-changer Apple has been known for in the past.

 
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