Apple’s announcement this week that they are jumping headfirst into the education market was an expected and well-received move. With the additions of iBooks textbooks, iBooks Author, and a dedicated iTunes U app, Apple is looking to both improve the state of educational material available to students and make a whole lot of money in the process.
There’s a lot to like here. The ability for anyone to create textbooks and then publish them to the iBookstore creates a much lower barrier of entry for smaller organizations. Apple provides the publishing tools and the distribution channel in exchange for the usual 30% commission of anything sold, and the iBooks Author app restricts you from using it and publishing your final work to another retailer. If you’re not interested in making money, you can still publish to iTunes U and students can download that content free of charge.
There are challenges, however, and most of them revolve around the hardware itself. Sure, an iPad is lighter than a backpack full of books, but it’s also an expensive piece of gear with a large glass screen. Mix that with the average student and you’re looking at a considerable risk of loss and breakage. Will school systems be able to swallow the combined cost of the devices, replacement or repair, and the books themselves? Some have suggested that Apple release a stripped-down lightweight (and lower cost) version of the iPad just for the education market, but I honestly don’t believe that Apple has any interest in fragmenting its product line this way.
Then there’s the distraction factor. Imagine a room of high school students armed with iPads that can connect to the Internet, send instant messages, and play games. Schools will want a way to control what these devices can do, especially if they are the ones purchasing them and supplying them to students. This creates an additional layer of IT that could complicate the process for the less tech-savvy school systems.
Another potentially serious issue is crime. If it becomes known that a elementary or high school has given each student a shiny new iPad to carry each day, those students could be targeted traveling to and from school. This would be especially serious in disadvantaged neighborhoods, which arguably are the places where improved learning materials are needed the most.
In the short term, this new initiative from Apple seems destined to succeed at the college level. My pre-Internet college experience consisted of grossly overpriced books and a mad crush in the school bookstore at the beginning of each semester. It’s generally assumed that kids marching off to higher education need a computer, so perhaps the iPad can fill that role as well. The big question I have is how can Apple make this work for younger students at all economic levels?