iPads in school: Will iBooks 2 kill the physical textbook?

Apple Education Event

Apple’s iBooks 2 app aims to fast-track us to an era of digital learning, putting iPads in high schools everywhere. But with a lack of university books and high cost of entry, how soon will kids be trading in their overweight backpacks for Cupertino’s flagship tablet?

All eyes were on Apple when they announced Textbooks for the iPad at their education event last month. Along with the likes of McGraw-Hill and Pearson partnering with Inkling  (the iPad textbook platform) and touting tons of interactive content, books were launched at $15; a huge benefit, since hard-copies can run up to $100. But with it came caveats, such as publishers tied to iBooks distribution (sorry, Android), as well as the obvious problem of getting a $500 iPad into every child’s hands.

I believe Apple may well be the catalyst in finally ridding the world of thick, outdated textbooks, but I don’t think this will happen overnight. Below are 4 reasons going for and against Apple’s push into backpacks everywhere:

Unified hardware and iBooks software

iPad standardApple allows you to choose whatever device and software you want to read textbooks on…as long as it’s an iPad and with iBooks 2. As much as I like consumer choice when it comes to tablets, having a single product line and OS works in their favor here. What school wants to act as technical support for why one child’s history textbook displays differently on their 7″ gingerbread tablet than their peer’s 10″ ICS model? And Android tablets continue to diversify. By contrast, keeping it simple will make it easy for everyone from k-12 to get started, and keep the focus on learning, not hardware troubleshooting.

Advanced multimedia features and study tools

iPad anatomy textbookConsidering advances in classroom technology – the whiteboard, the overhead projector, even the LCD projector – the iPad and iBooks could be the most significant. Gone are the days of showing boring films to the entire class – now, every child gets a richer, interactive experience that can be assimilated at their own pace. It can even replace laptops and desktops in classrooms, as relevant web content can be accessed with ease. Miss a class for that doctor’s appointment? No problem, they can catch up at home, or even while in the waiting room. Also gone are tattered, marked-up textbooks of old – advanced study tools easily turn digital highlighting into customized notes for test preparation. While the extent of educational gains from digital learning are yet to be realized, a recent pilot study in Riverside, California found that 20 percent more middle school students scored “Proficient” or “Advanced” in Algebra comprehension when using an iPad textbook, compared to the paper counterpart.

An entire backpack in the hand

iPad BackpackIt’s no secret that textbooks are heavy. Really heavy. Having all of your books in a small, 1.3 lb device is no small benefit to overlook. Back strain will be reduced and posture significantly improved, resulting in more energy for sports and other activities. However with books taking up to 2.77GB of space each, discretion must be taken when choosing how much supplementary material to load onto the lower, 16GB models.

Easy to keep updated

iPhone UpdateDigital content makes keeping your textbooks updated a breeze. Instead of textbooks getting binned once every 3-4 years for a new version, publishers will no doubt want to make major updates annually to their textbooks, if not more frequently. However, some of these updates will incur additional cost. I can even see publishers implementing in-app purchases just to access enhanced or supplementary content. “The real truth, of course, is that Apple’s getting into this market to make money” notes Matthew Yglesias of Slate. Let’s hope that regardless of this fact, students will save money on textbooks and have access to the full range of content, when all is said and done.

Cost of hardware

iPad 2 PriceAn iPad 2 costs at least $499. In a high school of 1000 kids wanting to make the shift to digital learning, that’s a lot of money in iDevices. And as the system only works if every child has one, each family could be stuck with a hefty bill at the end of the day. Apple is well aware of this issue; Joshua Topolsky of The Verge notes that the company plans to “work with districts to lease iPads on a four-year schedule“. However, this arrangement has it’s own problems, as there are still questions around bringing the tablets home, filling them up with unneeded apps, and what to do in cases of damage. Middle-income families with more than 2 school-aged children may feel especially squeezed, if every child has to purchase or lease an iPad.

Potential for distraction

iPad GamesThis is an easy one to envision. Back in the day, what could students do to occupy themselves during a particularly boring class or lecture? Flick rubber bands or pass along handwritten notes? Now with an iPad at each desk, the potential to swap Algebra for Angry Birds is too great. Add to that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and very little schoolwork will be getting done at all. Teachers will have to be extra-vigilant to ensure students stay on task, and / or install safeguards to limit access to school-related apps only.

University books cost more

University textbooksWhile Apple did not release any university textbooks at launch, no doubt these are close at hand. In fact, 3 Canadian Colleges have already been running pilot programs, as well other colleges such as Notre Dame outfitting classes with iPads. However, what will be the price when they are released? With hard copies of university books running upwards of $200, I doubt that professors and publishers will be lining up to sell digital versions to the same audience at $14.99 or less. Therefore, I predict a spike in prices once universities open the floodgates to digital editions. And unlike high schools, most universities require students to purchase their devices outright, so it may make take a bit more coaxing to get an iPad into the backpacks of each student.

Copyright and piracy issues

Jailbroken iPadWith the introduction of iBooks Author, professors can now create their own e-books and distrubute them to the class. And if you’re like me, you’ll remember getting (copyrighted) journals or articles photocopied and put into thick course packets. Even moreso, I remember hovering over the library photocopier to copy what I needed from library books. If these copies now find their way into digital editions of course material, will Apple crack down and send us back to the copy machines?

The last one is particularly serious, which is the digital piracy of textbooks. And make no mistake, it will come despite Apple’s best intentions to stop it. Just as your friend may have downloaded Angry Birds on his jailbroken iPhone, or seem to have every new music album without ever buying an iTunes card, we will see a whole new black market start to appear for pirated iTextbooks on the web. Before this, the only way to copy a book was to have a very patient friend and a large stack of quarters. Now, digital learning brings with it an  ever-present digital piracy that could eat into the bottom line of well-meaning professors and publishers if not tightly controlled.


iPad Textbook

The addition of textbooks to Apple’s iBooks 2 platform makes this an exciting time for digital learning, with schools everywhere taking notice. Heavy, outdated textbooks are finally being replaced with lightweight, easy-to-use devices with powerful multimedia features and study tools. However, working against their adoption is high cost, lack of university books and piracy concerns, as well as being an easy distraction during class time. Do you think that the iPad and iBooks 2 are the future of textbooks? Sound off in the comments below.

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  • Jaceyfraz69

    Where can we get the backpack in the photo?