2012-01-19

Co.Exist

Apple's Education Plans Will Further Fragment An Already Fragmented Industry

There are already a slew of forces at work trying to reinvent the text book with technology. Will Apple be able to push them all aside? Or will its announcement just serve to further confuse educators?

Everybody had a good word for Apple’s e-book announcements yesterday—but for vastly different reasons. Educators envision potential cost savings. Publishers see fresh marketing opportunities. But the reality will be far messier. Expect a scrum.

Consider K-12 schools. This set typically spends about $75 to $80 per textbook and then tries to stretch the life of those textbooks out to five to seven years. By pricing individual e-books at $15 a piece—and requiring every student to have a fresh license each year—publishers potentially can earn the same revenue provided they keep up sales. "Most importantly, the student edition isn’t the only thing we sell," notes Lisa O’Masta, McGraw-Hill’s vice president of marketing for STEM. For instance, McGraw-Hill also offers teacher editions, professional development, and other supporting materials, all of which can amount to more sales.

University students get socked much harder, of course. For instance, students at Indiana University routinely spend between $600 to $900 a semester on books, says Brad Wheeler, vice president of IT at Indiana University and a business school professor. Only 30% to 50% of students sell their books back, he added. As a result, all efforts to reduce those costs are "good, good, good," says Wheeler.

E-books can look cheaper—at first. But on a campus like Indiana, that wants to be "device agnostic," there’s a risk that students could wind up having to use (and buy) a half dozen different software systems or learning management tools to unlock the content of their classes.

As a result, Indiana is one of five schools, under the banner of nonprofit Internet2, partnering with learning management system Courseload to offer free e-text from the likes of McGraw-Hill, delivered via Courseload. The school foots the bill for the content and LMS, negotiating for volume discounts. Students get the e-text for free or pay for print texts. McGraw-Hill contends it will balance its budget by saving money on the cost of producing texts, especially specialty titles. But make no mistake: Publishers will evaluate such arrangements, keeping a close eye on the bottom line.

Wheeler is consequently cautious about whether Apple’s e-books will translate into savings for his students. "Apple has long made a lot of money by controlling the user experience," he says. "They’re trying to do that again here. We’ll see how that shakes out in time." Even so, he’s quick to add that any effort to introduce new technologies—and price points—to the publishing model represent "a big leap forward."

For now, however, that big leap may leave academic book buyers facing a dizzying number of choices in how they want to get their content. In the K-12 environment, for instance, McGraw-Hill already offers its school customers subscription content delivered from the cloud (Cinch Learning), a hybrid cloud-textbook approach (ConnectED) and a "student centered" approach (Spark) where students can devise their own avatars—in addition to traditional textbooks and now, their iPad-specific offerings.

Even more differentiation is happening in higher ed, where independent startups such as Kno, Inkling, and Chegg are delivering content from traditional publishers. And that doesn’t begin to factor in the battle brewing between Apple and book kingpin Amazon, which is not eager to see anyone compete in its sphere.

So although there may be cost savings when schools decide what content they want and how they want to get it, school leaders may wind up spending time—and money—agonizing over the wide variety of choices.

Perhaps the most complex prediction is whether Apple’s new technology will produce better books. Yes, the technology will make it possible for anyone to brew up an interactive book—much like anyone can use Garage Band to create a new music track. But exactly what constitutes a great interactive book is still very much a work in progress.

Theo Gray makes some of the most spectacular e-books on the planet: Steve Jobs used Gray’s first e-book, Elements, to demonstrate the power of the original iPad in 2010. Since then, Gray’s specialty publishing house, Touch Press, has churned out eight titles in multiple languages, including a haunting work, Skulls, by the prolific Simon Winchester.

Gray says he looks forward to using Apple’s latest e-book toolkit, which he previewed at Jobs’s request a year ago. But he concedes that even his group is still experimenting with how to create a great interactive book. "Just because you have a typewriter," he notes wryly, "doesn’t mean you can write a best seller."  

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