Can Apple Revolutionize the Textbook?

It’s rare to find a student who doesn’t have an iPod these days. Apple revolutionized how we acquire and listen to music with its iTunes software and iPods. Gone are the days of having to buy an album whether or not you like all the songs on it; now you can buy whichever songs you wish, listen to them in whatever order you choose and all without going to a store. Is Apple seeking to create a similar revolution in the realm of textbooks, so that educators can customize books and students will no longer turn dog-eared pages muddled through by previous generations, but learn their geometry on iPad, with 3-D diagrams, videos, audio, colorful graphs and many more features?

The “iTextbook”

At its Thursday New York City education-focused event, Apple indeed seems to have made supplanting print textbooks with digital ones (on the iPad) its next mission. Apple has released iBooks 2, a new section of its e-bookstore via which students can download iPad e-textbooks — iTextbooks – as well as iBooks Author, software for the Macintosh that makes it possible to create textbooks and other books and sell them through Apple’s e-bookstore. Apple also unveiled a revamped version of iTunes U, complete with an iPod/iPhone/iPad app and full integration with iBooks and made it possible for K-12 students to use.

Apple has signed agreements with three major US textbook publishers, Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to create and sell electronic high school textbooks which will cost $15 or less. Some science and mathematics books are available, along with a free sample of one by famed scientist E.O. Wilson, Life on Earth.  Those who saw a demo of the book (you can seen it via this video) were, as expected, awed.

Textbooks available in Apple’s iBooks store can only be used on Apple devices. But as many have pointed out, it is highly unlikely that most school districts can afford a $400-$500 iPad for every student. As the New York Times recalls, Amazon announced that its Kindle DX would revolutionize textbooks in 2009, only to see the plan by and large “fizzle” in pilot programs with college students who — unlike K – 12 public students — may be more likely to purchase an e-reader of some sort.  Even if you could download one of the iBook textbooks onto a less expensive iPod, the size of the print (not to mention of diagrams, etc.) would be prohibitively small.

The Problem of Affordability and Access

Apple announced its electronic textbook initiative at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Whether Apple intended it or not, this choice of venue — a beautiful art museum in a major cultural capital of the world — symbolizes both the innovations and the limitations of Apple’s attempts to enter the $8 billion domestic textbook market.

First, e-textbooks on iPads are only available to those who can afford the devices. Second, it is one thing for educators and adults (with memories of wretched hours spent poring over word-filled pages of a chemistry textbook) to gush over the graphical delights of a textbook on an iPad. But it is another matter to be a student using such a book in a classroom while trying (or failing) to avoid fiddling around with the other features and apps on the device, and yet also another for the teacher trying to teach, be the resident technology specialist and maintain a reasonably ordered learning environment.

One device that contains every textbook a student needs seems a big plus (and likely to cut down on concerns about students injuring their backs under the weight of too many heavy textbooks in their backpacks). Electronic textbooks, with the rich multimedia interface the iPad offers make a “minimum classroom” possible for students “regardless of physical circumstances,” says Megan Garber in The Atlantic — though as she too notes, whether or not the iTextbook will become as popular as the iPod rests largely on there being “future, presumably cheaper models of the tablet” available. Very, very few of my students at the (small, urban, Jesuit) college where I teach have iPads; some have to wait to buy textbooks till some weeks in the semester due to a lack of funds.

That said, I find the idea of e-textbooks that could be customizable to the different academic needs of students intriguing. Sometimes I have wondered why I even assign a textbook for my Elementary Latin class, as much of the information is communicated in class (via my teaching and writing on the board) or can be found on the internet (yes, through Wikipedia and other sites). The textbook I do assign is black and white, with few images; it is readily available and older, used, cheaper versions work as well as the newer ones as Latin grammar is a subject that does not change. I am more than tempted to see what sort of Latin textbook I might create using Apple’s new software.

But it would be a bit ironic if a textbook I wrote for my students would not be accessible to them, unless they have the right device.

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Photo by BarbaraLN


Tim Cheung
Tim C5 years ago


ida w.
Ida Nga Sze W5 years ago

it is the future for sure. you can imbed video like chemical experiment inside the book. it is way more clear than just pictures. besides it is so much lighter. :-)

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado5 years ago

Nothing can replace a printed book.

New G.
W. C5 years ago

Thank you.

James E.
James E5 years ago

Interesting, and certainly a worthy idea. However, using proprietary software/platform would be harmful and costly for schools and students. Obviously, Apple's goal is money/profit and an iPad in everyone’s hand, not improving education. Where will the money come from to pay for the overpriced iPads? If you wonder why I said overpriced, considering the huge profits Apple has raked in, and with $82-plus billion cash on hand last month, the obviously have a considerable markup above actual costs.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

I love paper textbooks. The real stuff.

Bob P.
Bob P5 years ago

thanks for sharing are the school going to supply Ipads???

Ahab G.
Ahab G.5 years ago

Monopolization =/= revolution. Apple supports technological illiteracy and censors its own digital stores to make the CCP proud. If it isn't profitable to teach children about Adam Smith or Freidrich Engels or Ben Franklin or the existence of open-source software or the services done for humanity by corporate and government whistleblowers, then just like so many other things Apple would simply erase it from existence. Just because they made billions selling pretty shiny expensive locked down versions of what has already existed, does not mean they should be trusted to provide anything in the classroom but what will make more compliant consumers and future technologically illiterate dependents.

Only books are future, tamper, and by themselves censor-proof.

tiffany t.
tiffany t5 years ago

I do not have an iPod and I will never give up paper books!

Hannah Short
Hannah Short5 years ago

i recommend keeping the paper books, i might not be in high school but looking at a screen for so many hours gives me a headache, and i know i'm not the only one so there have to be some other high school students that have the same problem, and its not good for the eyes. and i for one do not like the modern day technologies and i would not like to rely on them