Apple, Textbooks, and Carbon Fibre Buggy Whips…

The other day, Apple held a big education event in New York, focused on textbooks on the iPad. (Info here or watch the event here). Apple released several products and tools, hoping to further impact the education market.

Apple released iBooks 2.0 (supports multimedia in the books, interactive elements, highlighting, note taking, pinch for TOC etc.) and a new category in the store: textbooks. Pearson, DK, and McGraw Hill already have a couple textbooks available. They’re cheaper than a regular text, too: around $15, but I think the goal is to sell one per student, instead of using one with 5-8 students over a period of 5-8 years. (Cool Cat Teacher blogs here about what it was like to work with/test out an interactive text.)

There is a new Mac app (Lion only) called iBooks Author for making your own “textbooks” (think Pages combined with iWeb combined with Keynote). Completed books can be sold in the iBookstore.

Finally, there is a new iTunes U app for iPad which lets teachers harness “courses” based on content from iTunes U, and the addition of tools so you can add your own syllabi, message with your students, make assignments, etc. Looks kind of like if iTunes U, Noteshare, and Newstand combined. Apple also announced that although iTunes U has traditionally been for University use, K-12 can now sign upfor accounts.

I can’t blame Apple for wanting a piece of the textbook market. According to Wired, in 2010, Pearson had over $8 billion in revenues and McGraw-Hill over $2 billion. (Yes. Billion. With a “B”! As in 9 zeros!) And the traditional print publishing industry is struggling. Newspapers, magazines, trade books are are struggling to redefine themselves in a digital world.

What print textbooks share with those other genre’s is that they are not interactive in an age when our students are accustomed to accessing interactive media (as illustrated by Joe’s frustration at his non-notebook computer). At least Apple’s new textbooks and textbook creation tools address this issue and allow publishers to create textbooks with videos, interactive models and other elements. So, if you’re going to use a textbook, I guess I’d rather you use one with interactive elements than a static one…

But in general, I’m not a huge fan of textbooks. I think for me, the problem is that too many places use textbooks AS the curriculum. I’m perfectly happy with good teachers who see textbooks as one educational resource to use as they design (or as students design) learning experiences. But too often it seems the textbook is the only resource. Textbooks are insufficent for the curriclum because they only provide background knowledge. They don’t provide context, or experiences, or allow students to synthesize or apply information. In other words, by themselves, textbooks essentially only provide facts, they don’t help students create meaning.

Textbooks seem out of place in a day when schools are trying to reinvent themselves from a system that was designed to work for only some students. In this economy, we need systems that work for every student. And those systems need to engage students not just in aquiring knowledge, but in creating meaning from it. Textbooks are so “last century”! Given today’s interactive, digital world, educator and blogger Fraser Speirs refers to the new textbooks as “the equivalent of carbon fibre buggy whips.”

In my opinion (and other’s, and other’s, and other’s, and other’s) often the best learning (and teaching) happens when teachers don’t use textbooks. This is especially true, living in a state where every middle school student, and about half the high school students, have a school provided laptop (and all of my district’s kindergarten students have iPads!). You’d think teachers would work with students not only on how to find information, but then also how to leverage their technology to apply, evaluate, and create with that knowledge.


For example, imagine an introductory lesson focused on building a student’s background knowledge on a topic. Instead of having students read a chapter on the causes of the Civil War and then discussing what they read (which, by the way, every single child not only read the exact same description of the causes, but they all have been exposed to only one take on those causes – the textbook’s), have students open their laptops and ask them, “what were the causes of the Civil War?” Students could search and share what they found out. You could ask, “Did anyone find anything different?” You could even compare sources or discuss approaches to surfing and searching. You could have them find perspectives that would reflect substantially different points of view. You could explore and discuss different kinds of sources and the apparent relative value.


Well, maybe not the first time you do this with students, but certainly the more times you do, the more you model for them, and the more they reflect on the process, the more your “introductory” lessons could look like this. And think about the “learning” skills and digital citizenship skills your students would develop!

That all said, these announcements are ripe with possiblities and potential! There is certainly some incremental improvement having texts with interactive elements (still no real model of an interactive text). But I think the understated power of Apple’s announcement last Thursday are iBooks Author and the iTunes U app. I agree with Fraser Speirs’ assessment:

iTunes U is the game changer. Put iBooks Author and iTunes U into the hands of great teachers, put iPads in their students hands, put them all in a room together then step back and see what happens. That’s the ballgame.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to publish a series of posts that explore some of that potential:

  • Product Creation Tools for Students
  • A Platform for Creating On-Demand PD for Teachers
  • Curriculum Creation Tools for Customized Learning

It’s Your Turn:

What was your reaction to Apple’s textbooks announcement? How do you think it will impact schools, education, and educational reform?

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
This entry was posted in Food For Thought, Ineffective Motivation, Instruction for Foundational Knowledge, Teacher Practice, Technology for Foundational Knowledge and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Apple, Textbooks, and Carbon Fibre Buggy Whips…

  1. Pingback: Apple’s “Textbooks” Potential: Product Creation Tools for Students | Multiple Pathways

  2. Pingback: Laptops and Introductory Lessons « Bright Futures

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