Apple hopes its foray into digital textbooks for the iPad will impress educators and corner a huge, lucrative K-12 book market. But the high costs of the plan and the challenges of mobile technology could ensure that hardback books remain a classroom mainstay.
Will Apple create an all-iPad classroom and realize Steve Jobs' vision to transform the multibillion-dollar textbook industry? In January, the Cupertino company announced iBook 2, a digital textbook service in partnership with three big publishers that dominate the K-12 market. The electronic books will sell for $14.99.
It sounds like an irresistible deal for the dazzling, interactive books that Apple touts. But it would require a huge investment in technology at a time of shriveling school budgets. Teacher training and teacher resistance also pose a challenge. Publishers will issue iBooks for new, not existing, curriculum -- but to save money California has suspended adoption of new textbooks until 2015. And then there's the question of making Facebook and YouTube accessible to every student who's supposed to be researching Troy or looking up differential equations.
While iPads and other mobile devices ultimately may send textbooks the way of the slate, whether Apple's textbook service will become what iTunes is to music is another question. What puts educators off is not just the $499 sticker price -- $475 if purchased in batches of 10 -- for the basic iPad (add $35 for a case). It's also the requirement that schools buy the textbook software as vouchers for individual students, who will download the electronic textbooks onto their own iTunes accounts.
Every year, the school district will have to buy more $14.99 textbooks that it will never own.
Apple's publishing partners are guaranteed a steady stream of customers, as schools purchase a new electronic textbook for every subject and every grade -- every year. And Apple gains backing from schools to multiply its young card-carrying iTunes customers.
Asked if Apple would consider cutting prices for the iBook, as it's calling its digital textbooks, for bulk purchases, spokeswoman Christine Monaghan said, "It's $14.99 and you're asking for a discount?"
Ann Dunkin, technology director for the Palo Alto Unified School District, is an Apple fan -- but she's wary of the iBook plan. "They're killing themselves. Most districts are going to opt out of that model," she said. "Everybody's going to go to open-source textbooks" -- which are free.
The recession has squeezed even wealthy districts like Palo Alto, which this year is having to close a $6.2 million budget gap.
Palo Alto is one of the few fortunate districts with a dedicated fund for technology updates -- $1.2 million annually from school bond revenues. Still, Dunkin said, "We would have to more than double our technology investment" just for the iPad hardware. "We've already bought textbooks. We'll use them until they fall apart."
Publishers say that the iBook offers so much more than a hardcover book, it's not fair to compare prices.
"iBooks re-imagine how we present core materials," said Deb Bonanno, senior vice president for Pearson, which has a large share of the U.S. textbook market and is one of Apple's partners. With the interactive iBooks, students can view objects in three dimensions, individualize lessons and view related videos.
Many schools are forging ahead with iPads, even without the iBook 2 textbook service. With local bond money, the tiny Emery school district in Alameda County plans to eventually buy an iPad for every student in grades seven to 12. Already, it has issued tablets to 180 students in grades seven, nine and 10 and traded in its algebra and geometry textbooks for electronic ones. It plans to do the same for all core subjects by the 2013-14 school year.
"It's time for the education industry to catch up with the students," said John Perry, district director of information technology. He thinks the students will take care of the iPads and expects a damage and loss rate of less than 7 percent, because students don't want to lose access to the devices and tend to take care of them as a result.
Online texts are not limited to Apple's iBooks, of course. Nearly all hardcover textbooks come with electronic editions. The Acalanes Union High School District in Lafayette pioneered an interactive Algebra I book, the HMH Fuse, which publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt marketed on a traditional model: It's $49 per book for a six-year license.
It may be that those models, or open-source textbooks that cost districts nothing, will emerge as the alternative to the iBook classroom.
Despite the cachet of Apple, "districts shouldn't get crazed by technology. They should figure out what they want, then work backward," said Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, a Mountain View think tank promoting "disruptive innovation" in education. "The iPad is getting a huge amount of attention, a lot of districts are spending money on it, but they haven't thought out why."
The spread of Wi-Fi on campuses enables the iPad-in-every-classroom dream. But getting students connected at home remains a challenge in some places. At Evergreen Valley High in San Jose, junior Shacara Peixoto had no Internet at home for a while last year, making it difficult to get homework assignments posted only online. But even carrying an iPad to Internet hot spots, she said, "would be an easier load on students."
While many schools have ranks of technology-resisters, the early-adopters dream daily of how mobile technology could transform their teaching.
English teacher Nancy Kennett would love to equip each of her students at Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose with an iPad. Using a tablet computer to read a book in class, students can annotate -- in four colors, she exclaims -- to denote figurative language or symbolism or evidence for a particular argument, while they can't write in the set of classroom books. They can instantly look up words, handy in vocabulary-rich books like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Julius Caesar."
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.
And for many, it comes down to cost, even if electronic books have more bells and whistles. As Palo Alto's Dunkin said, "I don't care if an e-textbook is whizzier and better, most people are going to buy the paper."
Katy Murphy of the Bay Area News Group contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.