Apple today announced that it would begin offering digital textbooks on the iPad via its iBooks app. The books, which currently focus on high school-level subjects but will later expand to cover the entire K-12 curriculum, can cost up to $14.99, and Apple is working with publishing companies such as Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK Publishing to make it happen. The textbook store is available in iBooks 2.0, which requires iOS 5 and is currently available as an update to the original iBooks app.

The digital textbooks can include interactive elements like pictures, video, or 3D models, which will be displayed more prominently while the tablet is in landscape mode, while flipping it into portrait mode will display a text-centric view. Students can highlight text in multiple colors and take notes, and use the app to automatically display flash cards of their highlights and notes mixed in with glossary terms from the book. Glossary terms, usually displayed in bold, can be tapped to bring up definitions of the word both from the book and from the built-in dictionary, and the text is fully searchable.

Of course, most of these features are imports from existing eBooks and old-school educational CD-ROMs - embedded video, highlighting, note taking, and many of the other things Apple showcased aren’t new innovations, though they appear to be implemented well here. More interesting was the iBooks Author app for OS X, available for no cost in the Mac App Store.

iBooks Author is used to create these interactive textbooks - pictures, videos, and Keynote presentations can be dragged into any of the provided templates, and authors of existing books can import their Word or Pages files to save time. More advanced coders can also create interactive widgets using HTML and Javascript. Publishing books requires an iBookstore seller account, the iTunes Producer app, and an active iTunes Connect contract with Apple - a full FAQ is available here. Once all of these requirements are met, the book can be submitted to Apple for review. Textbooks have a maximum size limit of 2GB.
The technology behind all of this looks solid - iBooks Author makes eBook authoring and publishing relatively painless, and buying the books on the iPad is cheaper than buying a physical copy, at least at face value. Carrying around a single iPad is much less burdensome than carrying a book, and the ease with which students can look up words, take notes, and review material is impressive.

Even so, to my mind there’s a sizable gap between what Apple announced today and something that could truly make digital textbooks ubiquitous: the cost of entry, i.e. either purchasing an iPad for each student’s use or mandating that students purchase iPads for school use, is fairly high, even if you figure for a conservative 3-4 year replacement cycle (and even with AppleCare, iPad warranties run out after two years, making a 2-3 year cycle more likely, especially once you factor in iPads that are dropped, spilled on, or otherwise destroyed). Over time, the reduced cost of the books may offset the cost of the iPads, but the upfront cost (along with the cost of supporting the devices) is likely to scare away cash-strapped public schools. The announcements made today are less likely to revolutionize education, and more likely to increase the usefulness of iPads in school systems that are already using them.

iBooks Author requires Lion and is currently available for free in the Mac App Store. iBooks 2.0 is available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch as an upgrade for the original iBooks app, though digital textbooks are not available on the smaller devices.

Source: Apple

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  • tipoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    In school, textbooks are generally provided by the school anyways. With this model parents will have to buy both the iPad and the book. However if they move up to university with this it gets much more appealing, I've had textbooks that cost over 250 dollars by themselves, so if its even close to as cheap as the 15 dollar high school textbooks that would be well worth it.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Some K-12 schools provide students with "banks" or "fleets" of laptops, and a similar setup for iPads could be a way to get these textbooks to students while not forcing their parents to buy an iPad if they didn't want. Either way, there are lots of logistical questions about getting these into students' hands that need to be addressed.
  • GotThumbs - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    The costs associated with accumulating "banks" of electronic hardware for the use of students will exponentially drive up the per student cost of education. The US is already spending more per student than many other countries...and yet we seem to keep spitting out graduates who ill-prepared to function in the "Real World".

    While the idea is appealing (Especially for Apple profits, I'm sure), the reality is that most students will NOT care for the technology hardware and replacement costs needs to be considered. Even having parents co-sign for responsibility of the hardware....just try to get reimbursed for damaged hardware. You'd need to create a Czar of collections just to handle the work load.

    I think the concept has merit, but electronic versions of text books is NOT a new concept. Many college text books have been available in PDF format for years.
  • doobydoo - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    To compare this to PDF documents is to miss the point entirely.

    'At the end of each section, most books have short, multiple-choice pop quizzes that let you test your knowledge from that chapter. Luckily, it's pretty easy to cheat and keep trying until you get the right answer. Naturally, you also have all the usual iBooks options, including highlighting in different colours, making notes and – a real bonus for school texts – dictionary and web searches from any tricky words. Probably the most useful feature is that any notes you make are automatically turned into 'study cards' you can then flick through when it comes to revision. You can also share them over email.'

    Good luck doing that with your 'PDF' 'equivalent'....

    /sigh (some people, huh)
  • doobydoo - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    Oh and a 'bank' of hardware is only one option.

    They also work out cheaper for the students.

    Also, iPads are cheaper for education and will continue to fall in price, but will continue to be supported.

    Simple insurance covers any repair issues.

    Oh and even if you have textbooks in PDF format, you still need a device which enables you to read them, which is a cost. (Of course as we've already discussed, this isn't comparable due to the interactivity which you missed)
  • Wolfpup - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Yeah, I agree...I could see playing with this for fact if $15 is really the max, this could be HUGELY popular, and almost a killer app for the iPad, but high school? I don't know...

    Plus I don't trust the prices to stay low. $150 in 6 months, semi- ;)
  • retrospooty - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    "owever if they move up to university with this it gets much more appealing, I've had textbooks that cost over 250 dollars by themselves, so if its even close to as cheap as the 15 dollar high school textbooks that would be well worth it. "

    Dont hold your breath. The same entities that are raping you at $250 for the content of the book will still rape you for the content of the downloaded content. Its not the paper, its the content that your paying for.

    However, I am sure its easier to crack a digital d/l =)
  • tipoo - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    No doubt they would still be overpriced, but probably not nearly as much. Think about it, with e-books there aren't used copys floating around for years, the per-unit cost might go down but the total sales would be up if this caught on, and since authors can publish directly there are no publishing fees, again saving cost. Even at two, three times the cost of high school books for the university ones, that would be much less than what I pay in a single semester, and the cost of the iPad would easily be made up in three, four semesters.
  • Red Storm - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Wouldn't this make a whole lot more sense for college level students?
  • NickB. - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    College kids can't afford iPads *and* Macbooks... and most of them already have MacBooks.

    Something like this requires rich benefactors (be it parents or government).

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