Guest post: iBooks and iPads for Education. Plus ça change…

When all the tech pundits publish their articles and blog posts about how educators are all “abuzz” over Apple’s announcements regarding the next evolution of e-textbooks on their iDevices via iBooks 2, I feel left out.

After all, I’ve been a high school teacher for fifteen years and a bit of a geek most of my life. I blog, podcast, teach social media to other teachers, and yet for some reason I was not “abuzz”. Instead, I was filled with a sense of dread at what could be a golden opportunity missed to remove the suffix “book” from the equation. The author of Steve Jobs posthumous biography, Walter Isaacson, notes that Jobs “believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.” The problem is that iBooks isn’t so much destroying an industry as propping it up and redistributing the wealth so Apple gets to take an indulgent bite.

I’ve been waiting for the “destruction” of the textbook industry for a decade. Why should we provide eminent domain to publishers to lock information on paper in a digital age? Why should students be restricted to ten pound tomes of desk-thudding grandeur when the same information could be provided in bit-form? The textbook industry generates billions of dollars in revenues every year for a handful of publishers that become de facto gatekeepers of education. Of course schools/boards have the choice to buy or not buy specific titles, but when the choices are Grade 9 survey Science text from Publisher A or Grade 9 survey Science text from Publisher B, the only piece to weigh is quantity discounts and whether a staff member is getting royalties.

The costs of producing a textbook that will weather the realities of evolving knowledge and a student’s backpack are no doubt tangible. The costs can be prohibitive as well. Does the “gold standard” text cost $100/copy? Does that prohibit some schools or classes from purchasing enough copies or force alternate titles to be considered? I would hate to think that equitable access to education for all students is subject to tax rates and potential fundraising. Surely knowledge that is good for one student must be good for all.

I’m not disputing the costs involved in putting a textbook together. Instead I’m questioning the need for textbooks (or e-textbooks) at all. The internet provides a grand resource of knowledge that can be searched, clipped, archived and updated on-the-fly. Educators spend countless hours scouring the web for the best online resources for students and share them with each other. Just as a textbook is curated by a publisher, web resources are curated by educators.

Material for textbooks is curated by teachers, just as material on the web is. The web is, by nature, cross-platform. It does not require an iPad or any other brand specific device. Any tablet, smartphone, netbook, laptop, or PC from $100 to $1000 will be able to provide a comparable web experience for students. What part of the formula is missing to explain the unwillingness to shift from paper to bits?

There is a certain level of authority that has been ingrained into anyone over the age of 30, that for information to have worth it has to have weight. Almost every parent of a school age child learned everything they knew as a student through textbooks. If it worked for them, it must be the only option for their children. There is a shift happening in this level of authority, however, as the demographics for web use are becoming ubiquitous and people can’t help but see the ease and portability of web information.

And let’s get past one over-riding piece of marketing propagation here: tablets (including the iPad) are primarily consumption devices, they are not built for sustained creation, especially at an academic level. They can be interactive and engaging, but most students will never be able to comfortably write their first essay or complete a poster project on a tablet. I’ll also be the first to admit that maybe the essay or poster project is not the best form of evaluation in a wired world. I will maintain, however, that we shouldn’t allow the tools of technology to dictate curriculum as much as mitigate the implementation of it.

The choice to move to e-textbooks could put publishers in a tenuous situation, at least in Canada, until Bill C-11 ensures the illegality of breaking digital locks. Most copyright legislation has fair use or fair dealing exemptions when copyrighted material is used for education. In fact, C-11 would make it legal for Canadian teachers to photocopy excerpts from textbooks under such an education exemption. Such an exemption is nullified when a teacher breaks a digital lock to provide such an excerpt even if it’s for education purposes. Since all e-textbooks will come with digital locks to preserve their proprietary device compliance, any teacher who breaks one will be subject to a $5000 fine.

If a page in a Grade 10 Geography e-text would be a great example for my Civics class, and I found a way to crack and copy that page, fair use would not protect me even though my students would benefit. That said, if I performed a web search, I’d probably find a dozen alternatives online that would be adequate replacements.

The internet is a ready-made, platform-independent, crowd-sourced, authority-curated source of knowledge for K-12 education. It contains boundless rich media and allows for browser-based interactivity. Teachers, all over the world, volunteer to curate information that is not only tied to their respective curricula, but relevant to the local needs of their students.

E-textbooks will not be cheaper than hard copies purchased now because schools will not be purchasing books; they will be purchasing licenses that will last for the duration of the course. At the end of a course now, teachers collect books and redistribute them to the next group of students. E-textbooks will be based on a subscription model that will expire when the course ends.

This model has been drilled into consumers’ heads in the same way that you think you “own” DRM-laden music or video files on your iPod or iPhone that you have to illegally “crack” to transfer to another device. You no longer own a CD or DVD. You don’t even own the mp3. You own a license to play that mp3, on that specific piece of technology, for yourself and no one else. This is model we’re being asked to accept for public education, that our taxes pay for limited access to knowledge for our students.

The evolution of textbooks should be in eliminating “books” from the equation. That Apple is wading into the mix with the appearance of cheaper prices of “$15 or less” shouldn’t fool anyone. Textbook publishing houses have made billions of dollars each year up until now, and you can be sure that any future business models will be set up to make even more. In fact, let’s posit the following scenario:

Over a full school year, I teach 6 sections of Grade 10 advanced science every day. In each class I average 30 students. I have purchased a class set of a science texts for the classroom at $100 a copy. We do most work in class, but if a student wants to sign out a copy of the text to take home and return, they can. Under the new e-textbook system each student must have their own $20 copy as they are non-transferable. The $3000 I paid for a class set, which can be used by all my students will now cost $3600 in licenses without the publisher having to print a physical copy. Beyond this year, where I would normally be able to use the class set of texts for at least another couple of years, instead my costs will be $3600 annually on a perpetual basis. After four years, my school will have paid $14400 in individual student licenses that expire at the end of each course instead of $3000 for a class set of printed texts.

This is the publisher’s model for sustainability. If their lobbyists have their way, not only will you not have any choice about buying such licenses, but the numbers of each student enrolled in the course will be forwarded to them by school boards and billing will occur accordingly. Publishers will eliminate the expense of printing, packing, and shipping while making more money for “renting” ephemeral information to taxpayers.

Being “open” is the answer. Let’s embrace the technology that allows us to access the platform-independent information online.

We don’t need to equip students with $600 iPads so they can download iBooks. Buy them a $300 laptop so they can consume and produce content with ease.

Don’t pay rental licenses on digital information that is freely available online. Instead, give educators the resources to find information that will be customized to the needs for sharing, printing, clipping, archiving.

Don’t buy into the archaic model that pages in a book are intrinsically worth more than a webpage. Not only should we allow teachers to curate information, but it should become an essential skill for digital age students. Fostering such a skill is precluded by having a static package of words issued in paper or digital form.

Finally, let the stakeholders in education be able to build on each other’s work. Let curation build on curation. Let lesson and unit plans be public domain. We should not accept legislation that, in any way, prevents a teacher from using any and all resources at their disposal to enable a learning connection with students. To replace an old textbook model with touchscreen version of the same, or worse, seems antithetical to meeting the needs of students. Instead, Apple and textbook publishers seem to be meeting the needs of their bottom lines on the backs of taxes.

Anthony Marco is an educator and podcaster based in Hamilton, Ontario. Check his online activities here and offline credentials here. And hear both of us live every Wednesday night on Dyscultured.

1 Response to “Guest post: iBooks and iPads for Education. Plus ça change…”


  • Thank you for putting this out there for everyone to get their heads around. I, too, sat there during Apple’s recent announcement, gadget envy mojo working in high gear, wondering how this was much different. With a little work and some outstanding collaboration among peers, the same types of content could be created using curation tools that already exist.

    The one area I struggle with this is in regard to literature not in the public domain. How would we solve this problem when three sections of English 10 have to read On the Road or Catcher in the Rye?

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