It’s hard to describe how excited I am about Apple’s announcement this morning regarding iBooks Author and their effort to replace printed textbooks with iPads. As an Apple shareholder, and heavy Apple user as a professional, I think it’s important (hopefully more successful long-term than iAd has been so far), but this announcement resonates on a much deeper level for me.
Almost 20 years ago I wrote a short essay called Allison’s Book which described a young girl going to school with only a tablet in her backpack – not 40 pounds of textbooks – just a small portable device that contained all her textbooks and was networked for things like updates and tests. This was before the Internet, before the iPad. Pretty much before i-Anything. In fact, the media in the essay is basically something akin to Minidisks (if anyone remembers those).
Anyway, Apple is now bringing to life – with serious publishing partners – almost everything I envisioned in that essay which portrayed back then a distant future of 1998. So we’re a little late, but the announcement is nonetheless exhilarating.
One, kids are carrying iPads to school anyway. I’m starting to see them everywhere – despite until now any legitimate textbook content. Two, as a parent of two boys who bike 10 miles round-trip daily to school, I’m constantly trying to monitor overly heavy backpacks. There’s literally no reason why they could not be carrying only a tablet. Three, the sheer economics of textbook authoring, distribution, depreciation – not to mention updating – make what Apple is proposing inevitable. It’s going to – I hope – shake up a very old industry, in a very good way. The list of positives go on and on. If the politics can be managed.
In many ways I hope this could be the beginning also of a great equalization. If the cost of tablets can be brought down enough, or subsidies somehow brought to bear, this could put high-quality texts and even more importantly interactive tools in the hands of kids who have only experienced outdated, dog-eared, second hand textbooks, and over-crowded classrooms with little individual attention, their whole life. How much more engaging could this make eduction, as in my essay?
Regarding the politics, and the economics, of this whole concept, I wonder if the big publishing houses might see a path to subsidizing tablets just like carriers subsidize phones? Why couldn’t Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offer a $99 iPad (or even a free one) if the user (student) signed a 3 year contract that had him or her buying all or most of their textbooks from a single source? Why, further, couldn’t entire school systems cut deals with publishers the same way large businesses do with carriers?
However this plays out, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the future of education looks, sentimentally for me, much like the “future” of 1998 I depicted in my essay from 20 years ago. How exciting.