Apple’s e-textbook announcement critiqued

This morning Apple released an e-textbook authoring tool & distribution system, and in a single announcement may have shifted many of the purchasing conversations that occur annually at educational institutions.

On first glance, this seems to be a rebrand of the iTunes U bookstore focused on schools of all levels – an evolution of existing technology, not a revolution. iBookstore already allows authors to distribute books. The ‘new’ e-textbooks appear to be ePub3, a standard that already is in production and has the potential to work on more than just an iPad. Apple’s iWork Pages application already has the ability to “Export as an ePub”, although the new authoring tool should have a more robust feature set. Furthermore, an ePub can already be opened in iBooks without going through the iBookstore distribution channel, via email. However, Apple’s marketing strategy, as always, is fascinating and potentially extremely effective:


  • Allow consumers to assume hardware purchase as a logical step in an implementation plan, rather than advertise to that decision – By getting teachers, administrators, parents and students excited about the potential of using digital textbooks in the classroom, Apple brings its audience to vision. If people buy into the vision, then the purchasing decision to equip students with iPads (and teachers with laptops) is just a step on the path.
  • Focuses on action verbs – Apple’s marketing team has always focused on what people do with their products, rather than device specs. The vast majority of device buyers don’t know one processor from another and are interested in whether or not they can surf the web from their phone rather than what version of Android is installed. Engaged students (collaborating with each other and accessing dynamic content) are one of the cornerstones of successful education.
  • Convince administrators to reallocate scarce budgets – At a time of year where many schools are solidifying next year’s budgets, Apple has presented a neatly packaged authoring & delivery system for digital textbooks that may mean a cost savings in book purchases in exchange for an increase in technology purchases (namely iPads).
  • Align new offering with largest potential competition – Rather than battle traditional printed textbook publishers, Apple has convinced Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton to partner with the new Apple distribution system. These three companies represent 90% of the textbook industry. No doubt reminding these CEOs about Apple iTunes effect on the music industry was influential. It has not been announced yet how these existing publishers will leverage Apple’s distribution system.


This new authoring and distribution system for e-textbooks goes a long way towards providing students a more versatile classroom reference. However, it is still a one-way delivery system. As an educator, I can qualitatively estimate student engagement and use assessments to judge whether it has an impact on learning – this is certainly the hope outlined in Apple’s advertisement (embedded below).

As a content creator and possible e-textbook author, I’d really like this advancement to include two-way communication. I’d like to know which chapters students spend the most time with, where the most notes are taken, if there are sections that students skip, etc. There are already some social learning networks out there (I’m familiar with Better.At) that provide plan authors with feedback that allows for content adjustments based on data. Technology already allows us the ability to auto-collect and aggregate this data, and test scores are at least one step removed from the feedback cycle.


Critique aside, I’m excited to play around and see how I can use it in my own classrooms.

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