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Four Key Questions for the Apple Education Announcement

This article was originally posted at e-Literate

There is growing buzz online about Apple’s planned media event on January 19th in New York City. Most speculation is focused on Apple distributing textbooks through iTunesU, as described in a New York Times blog. The basis for most speculation seems to be the short comments in the Walter Isaacson official biography of Steve Jobs. This information, along with some additional inside sources have led the NYT blogger Nick Wingfield to suggest that textbooks might be offered for free. In a post on Mashable, Kate Freeman suggests a partnership with publishers such as Pearson Education.

The relevant section in the biography:

In fact Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. ‘The iPad would solve that,’ he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. ‘The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,’ he said. ‘But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.’

I do not plan to speculate on what the announcement will entail. Rather, I’d like to highlight some key questions about their announcement that should determine how significant Apple’s move will be.

1. Regarding textbook content, will the model by iTunes, iBooks, or Amazon’s Kindle Self-Publishing?

This question is crucial, since we are clearly seeing the the e-book world has some serious flaws. We have studies showing students only saving $1 on digital textbooks and other studies showing that the adoption of digital textbooks has hit a plateau (and yes, these two factors are intertwined). The existing textbook model, including pricing, has its limits. Audrey Watters had a post in December casting some real skepticism on how disruptive this move could be.

If the model is iTunes and how it changed the music industry, the announcement could be a game changer. Apple dictated the terms to music companies, getting them to support 99 cent songs – thus disaggregating the album to a ‘take what you want’ model, and making the pricing attractive to end users. Could Apple use its muscle to force publishers to change their pricing models? Inkling and a few others have already started to disaggregate the textbook, with $1.99 chapters available, but Apple could take this to a whole new level.

If the model is iBooks, where we now have e-books available for roughly the same price as the printed book, then this news will be a huge disappointment with little long-term impact.  In this model, Apple allowed the book publishers to dictate the end user pricing. All this model would provide is a more attractive distribution platform across publishers. Amazon textbook rentals and Barnes&Noble college bookstores may suffer, but this will not be a game changer, in my opinion.

The most aggressive model is if Apple follows Amazon in their Kindle Self-Publishing program and cuts out the publisher middlemen altogether. Will Apple (or has Apple) found academics and designers to create textbook content independent of the publishers? If so, Apple could even offer digital textbooks for free through the iPad. I would note that this aggressive model is closest to what Steve Jobs described in the biography. If Apple follows this model and has some way to scale the model, then we could have a significant long-term impact.

2. Will iTunesU support OER content without artificial restrictions?

Open educational resources are of growing interest to the higher education community, and there is real potential for this OER content to change our models. It seems a natural that Apple would include OER content within the iTunesU announcement, but will it do so without adding unnecessary digital rights management and other artificial restrictions? Currently iTunesU does not support DRM, so hopefully we get a good answer on this question. However, if they partner with publishers, I could see pressure to add some controls on OER.

3. Will the content consumption model be explicitly tied to the iPad?

Or, will any browser access allow consumption of content, as is currently true for iTunesU media? I could see a real argument that tying the content to the iPad would allow Apple to offer free textbooks in a scalable business model, but this connection would limit the disruption potential of the announcement. Additionally, tying the new content / features to the iPad would allow for a much richer implementation of digital content, as Inkling has shown. This will be an interesting part of the announcement – whether it is tied just to iTunesU or also to iPad.

4. Will Apple transform iTunesU to go beyond content distribution and expand the learning platform?

There are some key capabilities already in place with iTunesU that suggest this announcement might not just be about content distribution. Going back as far as 2006, Michael Feldstein observed:

If you’re a believer in all the Learning 2.0 stuff, then you should be studying Apple closely: Apple is all about “democratization of digital expression.” Really and truly, they get it. And the way they define a “learning environment” (as distinct from an LMS) is very expansive and progressive.

Subsequent observations by Michael from 2006:

If you supplement this capability [ed – content distribution] with a discussion board and maybe a shared calendar, then you’ve provided pretty much everything that the majority of web-enhanced classes use today. You’ve also greatly diminished the value of licensing a traditional LMS to cover the entire campus. This is precisely why Apple draws the distinction between a learning management system (which is narrow) and a learning environment (which is broad).

In other words, Apple has many elements of a learning environment already in place, and potentially the Jan 19th announcement could add more to this vision. Will they add some of these non-content-distribution features in a way that might challenge the LMS model in higher education?


I expect this announcement to be quite significant in the short term, in terms of media attention, debate in the blogosphere, and discussion amongst institutions. Whether or not there is a long-term impact and disruption on existing educational content and technology markets depends on the answers to the questions above.

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