Leader or Crook?

My mom wrote me this morning with a link to this article about the cost of e-textbooks on Apple’s new iBooks 2 platform with iPads. Most interesting is the graphic which compares base costs with annual costs for the devices.

The physical books weigh-in in their analysis at $9984 for 32 copies versus $24,480 for the iPads and cases.

Let’s stop there. They’re comparing a computer with paper and a cardboard binding. Yes, the paper is covered in ink and “content,” but the analysis starts off sketchy, comparing a computer to a book. While the cost of iPads, cases, and possibly insurance is obviously higher than that of books, these devices also provide far more than a reading experience. This is worth pointing out straight away.

Annual costs are also spotty, comparing workbook fees on the “book” side with “software” costs, i.e., the e-textbooks themselves, on the “iPad” side. Right, iPads lose. I also need to point out that an e-textbook, as Apple has created them, do more than the paper copy. For instance, they’re always up-to-date. And they are supplanted with rich media. True, the textbook companies give away this content online in some cases for free with the textbook purchase cost, but do we ever include the cost of the computer when comparing textbooks and the supplemental online material? I didn’t think so.

In the end, the iPads as textbooks cost $36,000 for a district, versus $11,328 for the paper books. Let’s reiterate: the textbooks after 6 years are out of date. For the iPads, you’re buying new textbooks each year.

One tech director from Palo Alto in the article is quoted as saying this is the wrong model, because open source textbooks are the future. And here’s my point:

Is Apple a crook or a leader with the advent of their iBook Store and their iBooks Author tool?

Apple’s giving Palo Alto (and every other school district) the software tool for free (yes, it only runs on Apple Macs–but it’s a small cost for the ability to author interactive textbooks). You can write all the free textbooks you want, and even distribute them easily through iTunes U for K-12.

So I don’t see Apple as a crook. I now have the same production tool as Pearson to make textbooks. I only need the time (and expertise) to start writing and publishing. Instead of viewing Apple (and the companies that have begun offering $15 textbooks for sale) as crooks, I see them as leaders. This is a real disruption. It’s going to be messy. My guess is that if the price is too steep, Pearson et al. will have to lower the prices. All Apple’s done is set a ceiling of $15. If you don’t think this is an experiment, think again.

I’d be in favor of a model where the school provides the technology and basic apps and the families buy the books (and whatever other apps Johnny wants). That model is what we have in higher education, for instance. This would be a huge policy change, one that would take time to communicate, research, and convince stakeholders of all colors that an electronic, interactive textbook that you get to keep (for as long as you’re joined the Apple ecosystem) is a superior resource to a paper book. $15 for a well-researched, well-written, and well-augmented eBook does not seem extreme, at least to me. But do I need that same book 5 years from now? I am not sure I value that. And the economy of scale with selling 100s of thousands of these at a time may make $15 highway robbery from parents based on the amount of effort, writing, research, and media resources put into the books. At this point I simply don’t know.

While I love my own iPad and am excited to be working on a digital citizenship textbook project myself, there’s the other half of me that’s waiting to see what we find out about the benefit of using these new tools to learn… in a perfect world, in my vision, we’d want a tool where any student could build their “own” text–I won’t be so bold as to say the word “book.” But a tool that makes it easy to collect content – either notes I take, a drawing or model I find, a video lecture, an interactive widget, and put all that together where it makes sense for me.

Right now we’re stuck on textbooks as that tool, thus putting the power of learning in the hands of others. But I see iBook Textbooks as an improvement for sure. And they’re not so bad on a device that combines the power of the Web in a thin, lightweight, convenient package. But I also think schools/districts should look beyond the iPad (or any technology) as simply replacing an old tool. New tools, especially those that have a higher cost involved, ought to provide richer opportunities for learning. And by saying richer, I mean, deeper, more efficient, and longer-lasting experiences. Otherwise, the tech is just cool.

So in the end, iPads are not free. And the textbooks are going to cost us money (and time if they’re ineffectively utilized in and out of school). But when I look back at Apple as a leader, I see:

  • the first company to release wi-fi enabled laptops,
  • the first company to release a high-resolution printer (LaserWriter),
  • the first company to ditch the floppy drive,
  • the first company to release a viable, touch-based computer platform

Leading is sometimes being first. You create waves. You incite controversy. But in the end when bold decisions result in new thinking and new paradigms for learning, I see leadership through innovation as an important cultural behavior. It’s not only our responsibility as academics to study these innovations, test them out and try them, but also to inform those making a profit on how to improve the innovations. Part of this responsibility comes through economics (whether schools or parents will buy $15/copy textbooks), but I believe more should come through discourse and critique.

The article I linked to does a fairly good job in the end of revealing the discord and disruption with the introduction of new tools.

In Mountain View, teacher Michael Bourquin walks around his fifth-grade class with an iPad while teaching math at Landels School. “I can look up information, show specific examples from websites such as Algebra.com and input grades quickly while spot checking homework,” he said.
But not all teachers cozy up to tech tools.

Gunn High School in Palo Alto has issued iPads to 30 freshmen in a pilot project. But, students say, most of their teachers don’t let them use the iPads in class, partly because students sneak peeks at Facebook and other social networking sites.
“These devices don’t help our kids be prepared to be in the classroom. They do the opposite,” said English teacher Marc Vincenti, whose classroom is not part of the experiment.

“The access to electronic devices on campus — available to an age-group that is not famous for its impulse control — lends itself to continual waves of emotion, anxiety and preoccupation that can’t help but wash over into classroom time.”
Many students, though, have embraced the iPads, which they get to take home.

Sophomore Allison Paley, 15, last year found her iPad useful on a biology field trip for drawing plants and birds. But for reading books, “I personally like the feel and smell of paper.”

Even for tech-promoter Horn, the bottom line is whether technology makes good teaching easier. It’s not clear if the iPad’s iBooks 2 program is headed that way.

So when students want to be connected socially using tools like Facebook, do we ban access (by taking away the devices that get them there)? We’ve been trying that in our schools already. And they’re not getting online with their with iPads. But by these folks trying to introduce these new tools, it’s revealed the breakdown of effectiveness in how school environments are structured. And to make that more effective–it will take real leadership.

The new-fangled textbooks are just one step in that direction.

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