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Thoughts on Textbooks on iBooks

January 22, 2012 | 2 Minute Read

I was thinking about the latest news from Apple, that they were partnering with textbook publishers to bring cheaper textbooks directly to the iPad while at the same time releasing an application for anyone to publish iBooks for the Apple Bookstore.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but it’s always appeared to me that the main business model of a textbook publisher is to slightly tweak versions of a textbook, altering page numbers and quiz questions in order to force students to buy newer editions instead of used ones. Perhaps the industry is thinking that iBooks will eliminate the used book market, and they’re probably right. But this could also have some negative (for publishers) side effects as well.

Apple is lowering the distribution costs of textbooks dramatically. Assuming that schools actually pay for a set of iPads for each student, it becomes trivially easy (with the iBook publishing software) to create free textbooks for schools. Who would want to give textbooks away for free? Teachers. There are cases of teachers self-publishing for their own schools, but for this idea to really work, I think teachers would need to collaboratively create a textbook that meets either regional or national standards and release it for free on iBooks. If you don’t believe this will happen, take a look at Khan Academy.

Previous attempts to create free textbooks have been hit or miss. I am not quite sure how popular Wikibooks are in the classroom. The problem is probably that of traction and scale. Previously, no one has created a standard for e-textbook distribution. Apple is doing that with iBooks. The beautiful part is that they’re bootstrapping it with traditional publishers who are probably digging their own grave.

Of course, this could play out in a number of ways. Maybe iBooks will prove to be too costly for most public schools to adopt (I’m guessing this is very likely). If only private schools or schools with a lot of funding can support them, it may not become worthwhile to create free textbooks for all.

What I’d hope to see is a slow adoption of iPads in the classroom using iBooks as textbooks. Once a critical mass of schools is using iBooks, free textbooks will be developed and adopted by certain school districts and spread to others.

I’m glad to see that Apple is trying to “disrupt” (I lose some points here by using a word I hate) the textbook industry, and it’s awesome that they’re partnering with that industry to do it. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out, hopefully for the benefit of our education system.