Apple Reinvigorates a Focus on E-learning

Courtney Williams's picture
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president

Jill Duffy of PCMag.com may have said it best: "Apple brings a spotlight with it everywhere it goes, and people pay attention to anything caught in its glow."

Rumors of the new and improved iBooks application began swirling weeks before Apple's anticipated announcement on Jan. 19, but perhaps no one was expecting the tidal wave of media coverage that proclaimed the company's venture into the textbook industry to be the Holy Grail of K12 learning. After all, iPads are hardly new, nor are their netbook predecessors or online learning material, for that matter.

Apple's announcements of its new application, iBook Author, which allows users to create textbooks intended for the iPad, iBooks 2, an updated version of the application with new note taking features, and its partnership with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which constitute 90 percent of the textbook industry in the United States, refocused what was a somewhat scattered mobile learning movement across the country. Schools have been adopting e-textbooks and implementing bring your own device (BYOD) policies at different paces, in different subjects, with different curricula, and on different devices. The interest in mobile and digital learning has been there, but with no succinct plan. Some may argue that Apple’s movement has placed a monopoly on the e-book industry, or perhaps that it has not solved any problems related to K12 curriculum.

"Apple’s iBook textbooks focus on making the content ‘better’ through interactivity and such," said Cathie Norris, Regents Professor in the College of Education at the University of North Texas, in a District Administration blog posting in January. “Teachers need curriculum—especially as BYOD explodes. And it’s a pretty narrow definition of BYOD: so long as it’s an iPad. If ‘reading’ an interactive textbook is what teachers are supposed to do in a classroom with their kids, then ‘direct instruction pedagogy’ continues to win the day. Just tell the kids the stuff, but tell it to them with pretty pictures.”

The Apple move has, however, undeniably placed unprecedented interest nationwide on e-learning, and, as Duffy points out, “I hardly think it’s a bad thing for people to pay more attention to what’s going on with learning in education.”

The Consumerization of IT

Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s choice to partner with Apple is a result of consumer choice, and not about which tablet computer or device is superior to another. Like it or not, Apple has the dominant share of tablet computers in North America and in North American classrooms, which is referred to as the “consumerization of IT,” says Genevieve Shore, CIO and director of digital strategy for Pearson.

“We’re seeing another form of consumer choice,” Shore continues. “Students and parents are being clear about what they want in schools. Apple produces great products and great software that goes along with them. No one can quite emulate their sales. We’re not making a choice about what is a superior platform. If we were focusing on Korea, we’d be talking about Samsung.”

The three publishing companies partnering with Apple have all been making digital materials, whether online or software for PCs to accompany traditional textbooks for many years. Textbooks were available through the iPad through the original iBooks application, although this new launch will roll out many more across different genres and grade levels.

E-books are less cumbersome than bulky textbooks, they cost less, and they offer stimulating and interactive curriculum to engage students in their reading. Currently, Pearson has four textbooks, concentrated on biology, math and environmental science; McGraw-Hill has five books, in math and science, offered through the iBooks application. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will roll out books later this year, although none are immediately available. The application is free to download, and all textbooks cost $14.99 or less. Both companies plan to roll out more books throughout 2012 after assessing the needs and demands of the education realm.

Create Your Own Textbook

The most unique aspect of the iBooks 2 application may be the option to create your own textbook. Open source learning and sharing of materials has been in high demand for years, as many teachers have turned to platforms such as Moodle to exchange materials. “Great teachers and great schools always create their own learning materials and ways of teaching,” says Shore. “Digital materials enable teachers to be innovative.”

Some worry, however, that the application may open the floodgates to books and materials that aren’t mapped back to curriculum standards. “It has pluses and minuses,” says Lisa O’Masta, senior vice president of marketing for STEM at McGraw-Hill. “There is a danger in the sense that anyone can create their own curriculum. There’s a lot of tested curriculum that’s proven and been created for decades. We want to enable educators to manage their classroom more effectively, but be sure each teacher is consistent and can provide the same level of quality as another teacher.”

Apple’s Not for Everyone

While textbooks themselves may only cost $14.99, Apple has yet to announce a plan to lower the prices of iPads, which currently begin at $499 a pop. Ensuring that each student, rich or poor, has access to an iPad before the digital curriculum can be rolled out in a district is key to preventing the digital divide from deepening. While iPads currently hold the largest market share of tablets in North America, they are far from being in the hands of every student.

“McGraw-Hill understands that not everyone has an iPad today, and we want to be sensitive to that,” says O’Masta. “We’re still providing solutions that will help every district on every end of the spectrum, whether it’s a hybrid model with textbooks, videos or 3D animation. Everyone is at a different place, and for those that are ready, they’re able to do that through the iPad.”