Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The New Education

On Thursday morning in New York, Phil Schiller outlined a number of problems in the current state of the American education system. He cited the low graduation rates of high school students, and noted that the United States wasn’t in the international top ten for reading, math or science. One of challenges, he noted, was keeping kids engaged in an era of constant entertainment. Apple, he said, could overcome this hurdle with three enhancements to the technology they currently ship and, as he pointed out, is already in use by millions of students.

iBooks 2: Textbooks

Textbooks are loathed by students and teachers alike. In the last century, the rate of scientific and historical discovery ensures that textbooks are out of date the minute they are printed. They aren’t interactive, and cannot present anything animated. This becomes evident the moment anything living is analysed. Static diagrams cannot represent these dramatic changes and movements effectively.

Apple’s solution is to provide students with digital textbooks filled with animations, live information and interviews. This isn’t unprecedented, as Kyle Rose notes:

This isn’t exciting because Apple’s the first company to create worthwhile digital textbooks. That honor goes to Inkling. It’s exciting because Apple’s the only company that is in a position to completely change how we learn, and iBooks certainly has the power to do so.

Apple is putting these digital textbooks on devices that students often already own, in a way that’s convenient and accessible. Aside from Amazon, nobody else has this level of content distribution, and Amazon isn’t doing this.

One can gush at length about the new possibilities offered by digital textbooks. I highly recommend watching the keynote or buying one of the books to experience it. Though if you’re concerned about price, you are in for a shock. There are a number of free samples on the store, and the full textbooks are only $14.99. Fifteen dollars for a textbook. That’s an unheard-of deal.

Of course there are drawbacks with this just-launched product. Textbooks are only available in the US, for now, and they’ve only announced high school books, and therefore only high school pricing. Expect post-secondary books to be more expensive, but to significantly undercut the price of the physical books by a similarly-huge margin. On a curious note, despite the use of the iBooks application, there are no page-turn animations. Rather, the pages slide left-to-right like a PDF. I suspect Apple was aching to remove their interpretation of textbooks from the physical version as much as possible.

But these limitations are quickly forgotten as you discover how simple it is to highlight a section, how quick it is to jump to a specific concept, and how effortless studying becomes. Apple has created a marvellous and delightful product from the oft-loathed textbook. Welcome to the new education.

iBooks Author

Along with the revamped iBooks application for iOS, Apple unveiled a curious and controversial counterpart for Mac OS X. It’s an iBooks-authouring application, but it isn’t quite that straightforward.

At first glance, iBooks Author could be mistaken an addition to the iWork suite. It is something of a hybrid of Keynote and Dashcode, from Apple’s developer tools. And because it’s free, I highly recommend you grab it from the Mac App Store and take it for a spin.

There are a few quirks with the app. The most notable one that I’ve discovered is that it’s set up only to produce the highly interactive books, and is therefore an inadequate self-publishing solution for those that would prefer to publish a more text-heavy novel or short story. Amazon does a much better job with their Kindle Singles. There’s also no option to embed fonts. John Gruber hopes that it’s just a 1.0 omission, but I suspect that it’s a licensing issue. iBooks Author is a free app, and anyone can publish a book to the iBookstore. Sorting out potentially thousands of font licenses would grind the submission process to a halt.

But the biggest issue with the app comes in the form of its end user license agreement (EULA). Dan Wineman calls it “audacious” and “unprecedented”, referring to this section:

If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore) and such distribution will be subject to a separate agreement with Apple.

That is to say that any book created through iBooks Author may only be sold for more than free through the iBookstore. You’re allowed to export and distribute it in other formats provided you do not charge for it. The EULA’s control over the product of the app that is what’s outrageous, as Wineman explains:

Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty.

I wholly agree that this is Apple overstepping its legal boundaries. They wanted to gain as much traction in the market as possible, and the quickest way of doing that is to release the software for free. But Apple needs to protect its investment and take its 30% cut. In the end, it’s controlling in a way that no other software is.

iTunes U App

After Apple had concluded the above announcements, the keynote felt like it was going to be over. Yet Schiller stood on stage and announced that there was something else that they had been working on to enhance education. Eddy Cue presented an app that I feel is one of the most beautiful they’ve ever shipped.

iTunes U is Apple’s free educational lecture collection on the iTunes Store. Since launching in 2007, Cue announced that it had become the world’s largest selection of free university courses. Conversely, I have treated iTunes U as a curiosity in the store. Today, Apple injected a little bit of life into it with their iTunes U app.

It is — quite simply — beautiful. It looks like iBooks made out of mahogany and brass. Everything looks rich, nobel and musty. Downloading a course is a joy, as the app bundles all the materials needed into the file structure. They’re not necessarily included in the initial download, but are made available to stream as needed. Every course gets broken down into a series of lectures, topics or themes, and the app connects with the new textbooks in iBooks where appropriate. It’s an exquisite experience, and one I cannot believe is provided for free.

The New Education

Nothing above will be remembered if Apple fails on its core premise of creating an education experience for the twenty-first century. This depends on wide acceptance, and could come to a grinding halt if any of the textbook publishers decide that it isn’t worth it. It’s good that Apple has the balls to disrupt the market in this way.

Though Schiller did not mention it, the students that have a higher likelihood of doing poorly in school or dropping out altogether are those from low-income families, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This presents an unusual problem for Apple. The students that can afford — and probably already own — an iPad are higher-income students. This is an issue that Business Insider raised in their decidedly awful response to today’s announcements. If they did the math using their own figures, however, the iPad ranks favourably.

Depending on the school, a full courseload is anywhere from 4-8 classes per semester, so for this example, 6 classes will suffice. Business Insider cites a typical textbook price of $75 and notes Apple’s maximum price for high school books is $15. Therefore, the first term will cost $450 for traditional textbooks, or $90 for Apple’s textbooks plus $500 for an iPad, for a total of $590. The traditional books lose their advantage in the second term, however, as it’s another $450 for those, for a total of $900. The student with the iPad is only going to pay another $90, for a year-total of $680.

This is, of course, a hypothetical example. A student probably won’t need textbooks in every class they’re taking. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a high school student will be purchasing all of their books; instead, they’ll likely be borrowing them from the school’s library. However, the burden that shared textbooks place on a school is obvious. Students can’t mark the books up because they don’t own them. The school must purchase enough books for an entire class, or several classes, and a number of these will need to be replaced at the end of each term.

To maximise their success, Apple has offered schools an easy way to purchase a large number of digital textbooks. They could then distribute the redemption codes on the first day of class. It has a cost advantage, too: for the price of a single physical textbook, a school could purchase 6 of the digital textbooks. For some schools, this will be a wise investment. For others — likely those with much lower budgets — paper textbooks will prevail. They don’t have the wiggle room to experiment.

For what it’s worth, I hope that this works out. This won’t just benefit Apple; rather, it will change the textbook industry permanently. It’s one that’s desperate for disruption.