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Apple's Textbooks for 1-Percenters Will Leave Most Children Behind

There's no doubt that Apple's new iBooks 2 initiative has the potential to vastly improve the K-12 learning experience by offering attractive digital textbooks with interactive features like videos, animations, definitions, flashcards, and quizzes. However, the proprietary nature of the software means that publishers, parents, and schools will be locked into Apple's ecosystem, an ecosystem so expensive that it will only help the privileged few.

The cost of iPads, digital textbooks, and the infrastructure to support them will prevent most schools from offering this technology to their students, creating yet another sharp dividing line between the haves and have-nots. Instead of paying a Mac tax, educators should embrace open standards like EPUB and the price-lowering competition they bring.

High Costs

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. spends around $12,000 per student per year in its public schools. While that seems like a lot of money, it's not nearly enough in most schools to cover small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio for elementary schools is 20.2 to 1). Outside of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, is there enough money in most school budgets to buy an iPad for every student? Can we really expect parents to foot the bill?

If a school adopts a program where it owns the iPads and supplies them to students, the school then becomes responsible for managing that hardware from an IT perspective. Districts that might now have one or two support people per building may have to double or triple their staffs. After all, if the school supplies the iPads, it needs to make sure they survive abuse, that they can't be used for anything but their intended purposes, and that they have the latest versions of the textbook software preloaded.  

Unlike some laptops that schools roll into the classroom on carts and then roll back out again for the next class, these iPads would have to be loaned to the students for home use, because there's no way kids can do homework or study if they can't take textbooks with them.  Taking the iPads home results in all kinds of risks: damage, theft, hacking, misuse. Schools would have to be ready to buy a lot of spare units.

The good news about iBooks technically is that the titles we tested worked perfectly offline so at least the school IT departments won't need to maintain a persistent Internet connection in every classroom just so students can learn. However, the size of one sample biology textbook we downloaded was 950MB so it's quite possible that schools will need the more-expensive 32GB or 64GB iPad models to store the full curriculum of the future.

Textbook Replacements

Of course, all of the hardware and maintenance costs of the iPad don't include the price of buying a fresh textbook for every student in every class, every year.  At today's event, Apple told All Things D's Peter Kafka that all of the textbooks would be $14.99, which is certainly a lot cheaper than the $75 per book figure he mentions in his article. However, it's unclear where Kafka gets his statistic that schools replace their textbooks after five years, bringing the 5-year cost per book to that same $75. 

What Apple's supporters don't take into account is that many schools don't pay $75 every five years. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reports that, in 2010, its schools spent an average of just $42.61 on elementary school science books and $59.72 on high school science texts, both of which would amortize their costs after three or four rather than five years. Many schools end up keeping textbooks in circulation for a lot longer than five years, and that's not necessarily harmful to students. While a contemporary history book seems out of date almost immediately, a basic math book or a foreign language book from 10 years ago could still be perfectly relevant today. 

If you commit to using iBooks, you're committing your school to a new textbook purchase every single year with no leeway to delay that purchase for a couple of extra years to save money. There's also no guarantee that Apple's pricing stays at $14.99 for all titles forever or that the titles you want will be made available via Apple's iBooks store. If your school buys a stack of paper textbooks, at least the administrators know that those books will still be around in 5 or 10 years, even if the binding is becomes worn. Perhaps someone other than Apple could get textbook publishers to sell transferable book licenses to schools so they can redistribute the same licenses to new students every year.

Apple Runs Your Curriculum

Publishers who want to create titles for Apple's iBooks store must use Apple's iBooks Author application, which runs on Mac OS X only. Publishers who use Windows or Linux computers in the office need not apply. If you want to create EPUB books, you can get software that runs on any platform.

Just as with  iTunes and its App Store, Apple gets to decide what content gets in, based on its arbitrary standards. The Cupertino company is nothing if not risk-averse so what happens if the content of your textbook is deemed too controversial to get into the store? If schools adopt iBooks textbooks en masse, we'll get to find out whether CEO Tim Cook believes in Intelligent Design or Evolution based on what his censors approve.  

Strangely, Apple's EULA agreement, as currently worded, also prevents authors who use the iBooks Author software and want to market their work on the iBooks store from selling their work anywhere else. It says: " If your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service) you may only distribute the Work through Apple."  Presumably, the text you write will still be your own if you paste it into another program to sell elsewhere. 

Alternative Platforms

Adopting any kind of electronic textbook program has associated hardware and book costs, but schools simply cannot afford to stick with paper until the end of time. If we're going to move our education system into the 21st century, we'll need the kind of interactive learning experiences that eBooks offer, and we'll have to spend some money to support that change. However, by using Apple's closed platform, schools ensure that prices remain prohibitively high and the choice of viewing hardware remains limited.

Books produced in the latest version of the open EPUB format, EPUB3, can have all the same kinds of interactive features as iBooks, but they will run on a wide range of devices, from tablets and eReaders to phones and PCs. Consider that right now, companies are making full color tablets that cost as little as $100. We're currently reviewing the Ainovo Nov07, an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich tablet with a $99 price tag. It's not a particularly great device as the plastic creaks and the capacitive touchscreen is not the most responsive, but it shows just how cheap a color Android device can get.

At CES, the One Laptop Per Child project showed off its $100-or-less 8-inch XO 3.0 tablet, which is designed for the developing world but could work anywhere. Though the XO 3.0 comes with non-standard Sugar UI by default, it can run Android. The more-polished Barnes & Noble Nook Color and Amazon Kindle already have some textbooks of their own available and both cost just $199. With impetus from schools, there's no doubt we'd see $100 Android tablets that are good enough for viewing multimedia textbooks.

At around $100 or less, public schools could realistically require students to provide their own tablets just as they require them to bring their own pens, notebooks, and backpacks. For those students whose families still couldn't afford a tablet, schools could offer grants like they do now with school lunch vouchers or other supplies. Students who want a somewhat fancier tablet with extra features would have that option just as they have the option to buy a better-looking Trapper Keeper. Even an iPad can view EPUB books.

If educators support the EPUB3 format, students will have the option to purchase their textbooks from any number of online stores, giving them a wide range of  book choices and the ability to find the best deals for their schools. There's no need to pay a profligate textbook tithe to eBook Emperor Cook in Cupertino. Free your mind and the texts will follow.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.