Apple Edu = It’s a revolution, just not ours.

by P

What a week. On Wednesday the Interwebs shut down. On Thursday Apple revolutionized textbooks. What will Friday bring?

But after the hype has settled down (and yes, it was hard not to get a little swept away by all the great sounding announcements) we wake up with a slight hang-over this morning. Audrey Waters went so far as to call the revolution off and slammed Apple for this “slap in the face to educators and students.”

She is spot on, but leaves out one key point. This really is a revolution. It’s just not ours (I am still trying to decide if it wasn’t even intended for us, or if it just fell short.)

  • Yes, digital textbooks change little about the format and model of instruction that involves a textbook. Digital textbooks do not bring truly richer and more engaging ways to learning.
  • Yes, the cost at K-12 level are too high. In fact, if you add in the cost of the device (discounted over let’s say 4 years) using this to supply a school with textbooks is likely to be more expensive.

Those are two good reasons why  it is not the revolution we know was possible, but those things aren’t enough to discourage the majority of Apple’s vast iOS empire and the many who will join it as a result. And that is the revolution here.

What Apple did to the textbook is combining App Store and iTunes. And in the same way those innovations changed the software and music industries, will this change the textbook industry. It creates an infrastructure that let’s individual producers market their products to the end-user. That infrastructure is locked down physically as well as wrapped in multiple lawyers of legal barbed wire, but it is convenient enough for people to use it. And the content collection is seeded with books from the big players.

That all sounds familiar from previous Apple revolutions. Just as familiar will be what happens next. Prices will come down (just as they did in iTunes where we have more variable pricing now and the App Store that made software something you can buy for a few bucks), quality will go up (just as it did in iTunes which originally only offered low-quality MP3 files) and there will be an army of textbook authors submitting their works (just as the App Store mobilized a huge army of software developers). And all of those things are good for education.

But there will be a format scuffle and it remains to be seen if Apple supports an open or at least universally supported standard, or establishes its own. There will be examples of innovative textbooks and products that Apple locks out of their system to prevent competition. And other more promising approaches and companies are going to be overshadowed by the sheer media muscle of Apple’s initiative. All of those things are bad for education.

This is not a radical innovation because Apple doesn’t do radical innovation. MITx is a bold promise, this isn’t. But Apple’s strength is bold marketing not innovation. Apple innovations remain carefully close enough to the status quo to make immediate sense to a mainstream market. Yes, the experts will always point out the flaws and shortcomings (and they are usually right) but the easiest way to sell something new is to make it look and feel like something that customers are familiar with and understand. iBooks2 and iTunesU are close enough to what we have now that they may get the kind of traction that is harder to get with more innovative approaches. And while iOS devices may not be widespread among a general student population yet (and certainly not in developing countries), Apple’s distribution funnel that let’s them push content to these devices may get them the early uptake they need to pull more users in.

What this does is change another existing industry by making its products more elegant, more convenient, and reducing inter-mediation necessary to connected users and producers. And that is huge. But it’s not as huge as kicking off an education revolution. So let’s get back to work and make that part happen ourselves. To be honest, I am almost relieved that Apple did not manage to build the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion even if that had felt more like our revolution. But I want our revolution to be free and open and not part of something called an ecosystem that is really a distribution system.