January 23, 2012

Apple's textbook whiff

For a long time, Apple has been talking about revolutionizing textbooks with the iPad. The firm finally had its dog and pony show, but the whole thing turned out to be bizarrely retro: we can make learning fun by embedding animations in textbooks! 

Look, moving textbooks onto electronic tablet is a good idea in the long run, for two obvious reasons, neither of which Apple did enough to emphasize:

1. A single iPad weighs a lot less than a half-dozen massive modern textbooks. From 7th through 11th grades, I used to ride my bike to school, but my textbooks only weighed a few pounds back then. These days, there is only one kid in my neighborhood who rides a bike to school, and he has these elaborate saddle bags on either side of his rear wheel because that's the only way to keep his bike from being dangerously top-heavy.

2. A tablet also serves as a workbook providing immediate feedback. The program can even make the next problem easier or harder depending upon how you do on this one. Teachers won't have to grade homework because the computer system does it for them. For math an iPad might be even better than a laptop with a keyboard because it's a lot easier to do math problems with pencil and paper than with a keyboard.

At present, tablets are still kind of expensive, but the future for them looks pretty clear, although my guess is that the future will be a clamshell even thinner than a Macbook Air, with a touchscreen and a sophisticated set of hinges that lets you use it in either tablet or laptop mode.

39 comments:

DaveinHackensack said...

Is it possible it was a deliberate whiff? Academic types are often big Apple customers, and writing textbooks is a lucrative gig for academics. Maybe Apple doesn't want to pee in their Cheerios?

Reg C├Žsar said...

You must be talking about secondary school. For post-secondary, there is Even More Obvious Reason #3:

THEY COST TOO $$%^$*%&&^ MUCH!!

The Mrs. got a very generous student loan this semester-- for online classes-- and the textbook people happily helped themselves to 20% of it.

Naturally, the change of a sentence here, and 2008 to 2009 figures on a table there, makes last year's "edition" obsolete.

Stuck mailbox flag said...

Steve do you have a link for what you're talking about?

Anonymous said...

"I used to ride my book to school"

I can see it now, devoted scholar that you are.

jtollison78 said...

Shouldn't we be seeing open source textbooks at some point?

dearieme said...

Chalk and a slate works pretty well for primary school children. But then I went to primary school in clogs, so I may be showing my age.

alex said...

My town started giving ipads to all its high school students last year. They claim that it will actually save money, since they won't have to buy paper books for the kids, but I have a hard time seeing how that's going to work. It's a practically all-white school in Connecticut, but I don't doubt that there will be plenty of "shrinkage" from theft and damage- these are teenagers that we're talking about here.

Also, ebooks aren't really that cheap, when you actually pay for them. And they can't usually be reused, unless their purchased with some kind of license or something. So it might not really be so economical.

But it does give the mayor and the board of ed. something to brag about, I suppose.

Ed said...

There was a long, thumbsucking post and comments at the Crooked Timber site, where commentators wound up coming around to the view that Steve just expressed in a few paragraphs.

It was a huge missed opportunity. And I agree with Reg Caesar that college textbooks have become yet another racket.

Anonymous said...

RE open source text books. Open source allows smart people to bypass the normal gatekeepers of institutional knowledge to work together, if the product's end goal is to be sold to those gatekeepers, it's going to be tremendously hard to do so. In other words, an open source text book would probably still require a professor's name to garner use by most universities/schools and that's currently the expensive part of the text book.

spandrell said...

You can't possibly mean that digitalization will make it possible to go by with less teachers?! That we could spend less???! That it could make homeschool easier??! Heresy!!

Btw you don't need a keyboard with hinges. There's bluetoosh, ya know.

Anonymous said...

Gates foundation is investing a lot into this tablet based education (with a large emphasis on helping the teacher manage different skill levels). For example. Offer quick reading or math comprehension tests to 30 students. The will then be immediately be "bucketized" into their relative skill groups. Teacher can then track these students with custom curriculum that is more less generated by the software.

Sounds promising to me, but my guess it's going to be piloted in diverse communities rather than the burbs.

Mr. McGraw and Mrs. Hill said...

Shouldn't we be seeing open source textbooks at some point?

There are a lot of open source textbook projects.

This is one area that screams out for "disintermediation".

Opiniated said...

Apple is the last good American brand left

t said...

Everyone should check what

http://www.khanacademy.org/

has now. It was just videos the past few years. But now they have quizzes and logins. Spend 20 minutes with it and see how far away you think we are from having real learning on-line.

Anonymous said...

People keep complaining about the size and cost of textbooks. But, before reinventing the wheel, why don't we figure out why textbooks are so big and expensive compared to 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Could this be what revives Blackberry/RIM?

Blackberry's marketing problem is that it's a work product. It's not a consumer product. Plus apparently their tablet was terrible, and entirely dependent on a Blackberry phone.

Would those be drawbacks for a machine designed/marketed as an e-textbook platform? For the ad campaign, re-run the web-parodies of the Mac vs PC ads where PC guy uses the PC to do work and earn money, telling Mac guy to go to a podcast about his hoodie.

--Discordiax

Anonymous said...

Part II.

Heck, if Blackberry is involved in creating the e-textbooks, which would have the practice sets and quizzes, maybe Blackberry could expand into the credentialing market.

Pass the online finals for Algebra 101-102, World Literature 101-102, US History 101-102, a labless Science 101-102, and two other courses, and see which local college is desperate enough for enrollment to issue you sophomore status?

--Discordiax

josh said...

Hmmm. Kid rides to school everyday on a bike weighed down by two saddle-bags full of text books. Imagine him living in the ghetto...wouldnt be pretty!

Maya said...

"Shouldn't we be seeing open source textbooks at some point?"

What are you trying to learn? There is already all kinds of stuff on line to teach you anything from Spanish to biology, with practice exercises and everything.

Anonymous said...

College textbooks aren't very lucrative to academics, aside from a few basic and widely used intro texts like calculus or psychology. More importantly to academics authoring them doesn't get a lot of respect from tenure committees.

Anonymous said...

@dearieme
ipad is too open to distractions. Why do people keep looking for a technological or magic bullet solution to fundamental problem.. the problem is though, that liberals won't admit that their 'new' self esteem/pc based education is crap.

Henry Canaday said...

Speaking of carrying books to school, does anyone remember first grade, when all the kids were so proud to be issued a very adult-looking and fine-smelling leather book-bag, along with a shiny metal lunchbox and a very high-tech thermos for milk? And then, somewhere around fifth grade, we all got too cool to be seen carrying book-bags and lunchboxes, so we had to carry books separately along with plain paper lunch bags. Boys carried the books with one arm hooked around their sides, and girls carried books with two arms clasped in front. This was in the 50s, so maybe it’s changed. I gather everyone uses backpacks for everything now.

Anonymous said...

I realized textbooks were a joke when I visited a college campus and saw several students dragging backpacks with wheels. It's probably a bigger problem today since we have more non-traditional college students. In college I lived in the dorms and never had to carry more than two textbooks at a time. The books were probably just as large, but since I could venture back to my dorm between classes I didn't have a need to carry them all at once.

I'd guess it's probably 5 years, tops, until textbooks have migrated completely to iPads, Kindles, or other tablet-type devices. The convenience and labor savings are too powerful to ignore. Everyone wants to be rid of them: teachers hate grading homework, students hate lugging books around, and administrators hate the burden of issuing them, recollecting them, inspecting them, and warehousing them in the summer.

sideways said...

Reg, the idea with ipads post-secondary is to make texts cost more, not less, by completely killing the secondary market.

Charge less first sale, but never lose a sale to a resold book again. Except for the rampant piracy...

Anonymous said...

"ipad is too open to distractions."

1) Kids who want to thrive are going to have to learn to overcome the temptation.

2) Barring that, it's certainly possible for Apple to make a school-version iPad that lacks the distractions, to the point of enabling teachers to lock out any apps not related to their coursework.

If Apple doesn't make such a version someone else will, and that's a market of 40 million or so (in the US alone) that they won't want to lose.

Gerry Resume Writer said...

Don't forget the benefit of being able to easily search an electronic textbook, instead of passing hours flipping through pages to find something you remembered reading and need to use in an essay.

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

1) Kids who want to thrive are going to have to learn to overcome the temptation.

And those who can't overcome the distractions will just rack up more student loan debt. Which, all things considered, isn't that bad of a thing from a university's standpoint.

I am Lugash.

Anonymous said...

Everyone wants to be rid of them: teachers hate grading homework, students hate lugging books around, and administrators hate the burden of issuing them, recollecting them, inspecting them, and warehousing them in the summer.
it's a huge market, sweetheart.

Anonymous said...

@ Mr. McGraw and Mrs. Hill
maybe use one of those open source books to learn how to create an href? Your link is broken, sweetheart.

JSM said...

"But, before reinventing the wheel, why don't we figure out why textbooks are so big and expensive compared to 30 years ago."

That's easy. It's all the de rigueur 5 X 8 glossy photos on every page of inclusive, multicultural kids doing multicultural, inclusive things. Like, you know, pictures of a Black boy, a Mexican girl, a Chinese boy and a White boy in the back, all learning about money by counting Mexican pesos.

Whaddyamean, math doesn't need glossy photos? Whaddya, somekind of xenophobe? How do you expect us to educate the 21st century's multiracial hordes -- er, humans, without pretty pictures to keep their attention?

Anonymous said...

"iPad might be even better than a laptop with a keyboard because it's a lot easier to do math problems with pencil and paper than with a keyboard."

Never met symbolic algebra software like Maxima or Mathematica?

Welcome to 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

About 2 years ago, my wife finally prevailed upon me to get rid of all the books that have accumulated over the past 30 years.

She used some of the online book buyer services. Interestingly enough, the books that brought the highest prices, around 30-60 dollars, were classic upper & graduate leve physics and mathematics textbooks.

That stuff was all worked out a while back and isn't open to interpretation.

But beyond that, another stunning insight in this column, that electronic methods will soon replace old paper based methods of doing things.

Whodda thunk?

Anonymous said...

"Never met symbolic algebra software like Maxima or Mathematica?"

Yeah, you completely missed the point.

Welcome to being illiterate AND innumerate. You could be First Lady!

Felix said...

In my experience, teenage boys often forget their textbooks (especially if there's been a divorce and the kid has two homes).

Using ipads (tm?) would lessen this (and, anyway, the school could lend them an ipad (tm?) for the day).

Also, using ipads (tm?) would make it easy to advise teachers and kids if an error is detected in a textbook, and for corrected versions to be downloaded.

Kylie said...

@ Mr. McGraw and Mrs. Hill,

You two are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Over 40 years ago, one of your long-time employees told me what a racket the textbook industry was.

I'm sure things have only worsened since then.

DaveinHackensack said...

Congrats, Steve: You just got mentioned on Fred Wilson's AVC blog, where he cross-posted a post by Noah Millman. Fred, incidentally, just financed NYC's first high school focused on software development.

Maya said...

"Why do people keep looking for a technological or magic bullet solution to fundamental problem.. the problem is though, that liberals won't admit that their 'new' self esteem/pc based education is crap."

Well, obviously, an iPad won't make an unwilling, failing student into a scholar. But I think tablets are a great idea. They are not the magic bullet, but an improvement on the tried and true system for already functional students. It's like replacing typewriters with computers. Lugging a bunch of books around is horrible for a kid's back and skeletal development. My back used to hurt. Teachers could save time and paper by emailing instead of making copies. There are many other reasons why studying with a tablet, instead of studying with numerous books, notebooks and workbooks could be more productive and convenient.

Anon87 said...

With all the hand wringing about obesity in children, shouldn't lugging around heavy textbooks be good for the fatsos? It may be the only exercise they get.

Secondly, how are iPads supposed to hold up to multiple years of handling when the latest smart phones can't last two year contracts? A Calc 101 textbook has more life to it (not counting the new editions that get pushed by colleges to keep the book racket going. "This has a DVD in the back.....that'll be $110".)

Anonymous said...

Teachers won't have to grade homework because the computer system does it for them.

For math, possibly, but for language arts, rubbish. I teach English to former drop outs, with the majority of their work done on computers. For a short answer or essay questions, the software is written to look for certain "key" words in the response. If the student does not hit those key words, he can write his heart out, with excellent individual "voice", proper conventions, etc, and still get a 0%, which is obviously asinine. To make matters worse, the "sample answers" with the key words have been written by English nerds, showing off at the expense of struggling learners, who get scored down because they can't come up with phrases like, "Emerson is almost oratorical in his approach." I have to go in to every essay, change the grade and leave a comment justifying the change, which is a huge waste of time. The easy and sane thing to do would be to let me assign and grade the essays, but the rigid educrats who control the program will not allow it.

Computer work is useful for multiple choice questions, but for anything more complicated, its efficacy is limited at best.