Apple Textbook Controversy Isn’t About Books-It’s About Teaching
I don’t think there’s ever been a textbook that made it this easy to be a good student. —Roger Rosner, vice president of productivity applications, Apple
Whenever a company as powerful as Apple, Facebook, or Google announces a big new product push, it evokes wonder and acclaim from some observers, head-scratching and horror from others, and the usual FUD from competitors. So I wasn’t surprised when Apple’s press event last week at the Guggenheim Museum—where it said it will sell low-priced iPad textbooks to high-schoolers through its iBooks store and give away the software needed to make them—was followed by a flood of criticism. But I was definitely impressed by the range and vehemence of the objections. I’ve spent part of this week trying to figure out where all the discomfort is coming from.
Here are a few of the reasons Apple’s textbook plans are doomed, misconceived, or just plain evil, in the eyes of the blogosphere:
This is all about one media giant trying to grab market share from other media giants. Education publishing is the most profitable part of the book business these days—maybe the only profitable part. So experiments with digital publishing have been cautious, and hampered by the lack of a great delivery device. Apple thinks it can hasten the technological transition, just as it did with music on the iPod, and grab a big slice of the profits in the process. The only difference this time around, say some observers, is that giants like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson have decided to join ‘em rather than fight ‘em.
This is all about selling iPads. This point of criticism has two variants. The first says Apple’s textbook push will fail because it’s insincere: the company really just wants to hook teenagers on Apple hardware, so they’ll buy the iPad 7 (with direct neural interface!) when they grow up. The second says it will fail because iPads are too expensive: schools can’t afford to supply every kid with a $499 gadget that they’ll probably just break, lose, or misuse.
Schools will never buy e-textbooks if they can’t own them. Apple’s textbook program is dead in the water because the company wants schools to purchase books using “volume vouchers.” The vouchers would come with codes that students can redeem in the iBooks store; the textbooks would then be placed into the students’ personal iTunes accounts. The objection here is that schools won’t be able to grok the accounting math or the concept that the books will actually belong to the students, rather than being passed along from year to year.
Authors will never write textbooks for iBooks if they can’t sell them elsewhere. The biggest post-announcement hullabaloo has been over the terms of the end user license agreement for iBooks Author, the free program Apple built to help authors, publishers, and teachers create their own multimedia textbooks. Under the agreement, iBooks Author users who want to give away their textbooks free can do so by any means they like, but those who want to sell their books for profit may only do so through the iBooks store, where Apple gets its usual 30 percent cut. That might seem like simple business logic—there’s no reason Apple should help authors create content for competing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle. But critics screamed bloody murder about the provision, saying that it was like Microsoft taking a cut for every novel written using Word.
Nothing new here—iBooks textbooks are an inferior ripoff of existing technologies. Apple is obviously late to the consumer e-book party, where Amazon still has a commanding lead. The criticism here is that Apple, despite its boastful press releases last week, hasn’t really reinvented anything about e-textbooks. Companies like Inkling, Kno, Chegg, Vook, Flatworld Knowledge, and Cengage Learning already offer systems for creating and publishing multimedia textbooks, and most of these books work on multiple platforms, not just the iPad.
Interactivity is vastly oversold. The above-mentioned multimedia elements are quite spiffy, at least compared to the static pages of a paper textbook. At the Guggenheim event, you could see the geeky glow in the eyes of Roger Rosner, Apple’s vice president of productivity applications, as he demonstrated interactive graphics and animations from E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth, which Apple is promoting as the flagship iBooks textbook. But skeptics immediately trotted out studies purporting to show that education technology has little or no effect on students’ test scores. While e-textbooks can be updated more easily than traditional textbooks, according to this line of criticism, they don’t engage students more effectively (whatever “engage” means these days).
Textbooks are so 19th-century anyway. The thesis here is that Apple, with iBooks Author and its new publishing alliances, has poured enormous effort into a moribund and increasingly irrelevant medium. Textbooks are, by definition, homogenized and stultifying collections of factoids, written more to suit the specifications of state boards of education than to enlighten students. You can’t make this material exciting just by adding a few multimedia bells and whistles, the argument goes. The real action, say today’s hacker-educators, is in the open educational resources movement, which is all about helping teachers assemble their own textbooks on the fly from free online materials.
Now, there’s a grain of truth in each of these criticisms, and I don’t doubt that they’re all heartfelt. But when the reactions to an innovation are so immediate, shrill, and contradictory, you know that something deeper is going on.
Here’s my take: this is really about macroeconomics and the state of education. Apple is scraping a fork over an exposed nerve. Americans are feeling rattled by years of bad economic news, especially high unemployment rates that are beginning to look permanent. The economic meltdown of 2007-2009 exposed a systemic problem: it’s no longer just low-skilled work that’s fleeing overseas, but also positions requiring serious training, and “those jobs aren’t coming back,” as Steve Jobs famously said to President Obama. People are naturally questioning whether our education system is set up to prepare young people for the jobs domestic firms will need to fill in the future—assuming there are any. (For an extended look at that question, see our recent Xconomist Report on the Future of Education).
In the microcosm of the classroom, this translates into concerns about how to keep kids in school, how to get them hooked on critical subjects like math and science, and how to provide even the most disadvantaged students with the resources they need to have a fair shot at a lifetime of fulfilling employment. And that, in turn, boils down to a longstanding debate about the role of teachers and teaching.
Study after study has shown that the biggest factor determining whether students succeed is the skill and enthusiasm of their teachers. Even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has put billions into equipping schools with better technology, shares in this conclusion. So the question is really whether improved instructional technology such as interactive textbooks can help turn poor teachers into average ones, and help good teachers perform even better. But there’s no clear evidence on that.
There’s not even much agreement about questions like the proper balance between lectures, textbook reading, and other activities. Should a teacher be “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” as one teacher friend of mine puts it? Apple’s promotional videos last week showed a lot of smiling kids using iPads, and very few teachers helping them. The message: iBooks textbooks are so engaging and easy to use that they turn even problem kids into docile, eager learners, helping to make up for classroom overcrowding and all the other challenges schools and teachers face. There’s a lot of hubris and certainty in that vision, at a time when we haven’t settled the big questions about how to fund and structure K-12 education, and when we’re not even sure if learning should be “easy.” I suspect that this is part of what’s got the critics’ blood up.
But there’s a reason for Apple’s hubris. Matthew Battles, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, put it well last week when he said “the company’s visions have an implacable way of turning into givens.” Now that Apple is in the textbook business, there’s no turning back. The heavy old paper textbook is officially a dinosaur. The question is how fast it will disappear from the planet—and which of the striving species lurking in the underbrush will take its place.