Can Apple change education? |

Can Apple change education?

Can Apple change education?
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On January 19, Apple held a large, education-related event on in New York City. Just as with almost any other Apple event, pre-event speculations were all over the place. It was clear that the announcement was going to target the textbook market, but what wasn't clear was its scope. As AllThingsD's Peter Kafka wrote: "the key thing to watch at the Guggenheim is whether Cue brings up reps from the big textbook publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill onstage, or whether the focus is on letting educators and others build their own books, so they can bypass both the publishers and the antiquated textbook procurement system."

So what did Apple announce? Well, first of all, there's a new version of iBooks, Apple's e-reader application, which reads material from Apple's bookstore. iBooks has gotten a major overhaul and is now more interactive, supporting animations, models and videos, as well as featuring note-taking functionality. The bookstore itself introduces an new pricing policy: etextbooks are $15 or less, a fraction of what students currently pay for the newest editions of their current school books. And in fact, Apple partnered with Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (which together account for about 90% of all textbooks) to bring their textbooks to the online store.

Apple also announced the free iBooks Author app for Mac OS X: users will be able to create their own textbooks using a simple interface and can publish the resulting books to the store. In short, educators can create their own materials and make them easily available. In this way, Apple managed to come up with something for both large textbook publishers and individual educators.

Apple also announced a revamped version of iTunes U which previously served as a portal to aggregate podcasts and recordings of university classes and lectures, somewhat comparable to MIT's Open Courseware. The new version features a much more comprehensive approach, including everything to course syllabi.

But where's the catch? These changes are undeniably huge: the fact that the publishers were willing to crack down on their pricing for ebooks, which were previously priced similarly to the actual paper copies is a first. However, there are also a number of concerns, in particular around iBooks Author. Obviously, it's a Mac OS X-only application right now, making it difficult for Linux or Windows users to join the fun. That might not be a big issue for Apple, given that it succeeded building its iOS ecosystem while still requiring a heavy investment in Apple's hardware and software (while it might be possible to build iOS apps on other platforms, Xcode is OS X only).

Similarly, soon after the event, concerns about the application's EULA surfaced. Steve Kovach wrote for BusinessInsider, "Apple's End User License Agreement (EULA) states that books made with the iBook Author app and sold through the iBook store can't be sold anywhere else. However, if you offer your book for free in the iBooks store, then you can distribute it for free anywhere else you want."

Again, to some extent, this is the way it has been: either you purchase an expensive publishing application and get to choose where to publish your content, or you use a simpler and cheaper application to author it but risk being restricted to a certain store. But just because it's always been this way doesn't mean that it needs to continue. Locking users into the bookstore is certainly not in the spirit of the open source way. If you add in the fact that it is currently not clear whether other platforms will be able to access books from Apple's store, it's easy to see that the announcement creates more of a walled garden than an open community.

This move does make sense for Apple: making a wide range of high-quality textbooks available and enabling users to add their own increases the quality of content available on the iPad (and other Apple devices). But that doesn't mean that everyone has or is going to have an iPad, particularly in less well equipped schools (as ZDNet fittingly points out in its story about winners and losers of the announcement). Surely there will be discounts attached to large scale deployments, as Apple is likely going to be willing to pay a price to get into the market. But that doesn't make it accessible for everyone. So will this move create a bigger gaps between the haves and have-nots?

I agree with SlashGear's Philip Berne that "the problem with education is, and always will be, a human issue." Education is not a technology problem. So while technology may help reduce or overcome education's problems, it's not going to fix it. Or, as OLPC put it in its mission statement, "it's an education project, not a laptop project". And that's one of my main takeaways from the announcement: In the end, this move may revolutionize education. But it isn't going to fix it. That's a far bigger and deeper problem.


About the author

Sebastian Dziallas - Sebastian Dziallas is Events Coordinator for the Teaching Open Source initiative and lead Fedora packager for Etherpad, a browser-based realtime collaborative text editor. He travels internationally to speak at and organize education tracks at FOSS conferences such as OSCON, LinuxTag, and LinuxCon as well as open source tracks at academic conferences such as SIGCSE (CS education) and FIE (engineering education).