Apple’s Education Event

January 19th, 2012

Apple announced three things today: textbooks for iPad, a new iTunes U app for teachers to manage classes and for taking them, and a free iBooks authoring application for the Mac.

I’m going to talk about the iTunes U app and textbooks, but I do want to say that this is incredibly exciting. Apple is trying to re-make education, and it’s very clear that this is something that means a lot to them. This isn’t just another business opportunity—it’s a chance to do something great and improve people’s lives. Apple is the only company with the platform, resources and passion to completely change how we learn in school, and they recognize it. What they announced today is the best example of why Apple is different than every other consumer electronics company. Their goal is not to make and sell devices. Their goal is to make the world better, and however cliché that sounds, that really is their goal.

iTunes U

Before, iTunes U was a section on the iTunes store with lectures from various schools and organizations across the world. Now, iTunes U is also an iOS application with direct access to those materials—and also a place for managing courses. Teachers can upload their class’s syllabus, books, handouts (documents, presentations, PDFs, web links), quizzes, assignments and media, and it’s all organized into a single place for students. Students can also take notes for each class within it, but the feature-set is so basic I don’t see this being very important.

But being able to manage classes within a single application is a big deal, both for K-12 and college students. When I was a kid, what I struggled with most was keeping track of all of the assignments and handouts from each class. Papers would get buried at the bottom of my backpack or I would lose them altogether. That’s not only bad for the student, but it’s also bad for the teacher, because they have to keep copies of every handout around for students who lose it and deal with students who aren’t prepared for class because they didn’t complete their assignment or didn’t bring it. If they’re using the iTunes U application, teachers and students won’t have to worry about it, because everything will always be on their iPad.

That’s less of an issue for college students, of course, but having each class’s presentations and materials with you at all times, able to look something up or study, is incredibly convenient.

The bigger picture for iTunes U is Apple’s created a very convincing way for people to take classes online. We can take classes online now, but it’s a terrible experience at many schools. Students still need to buy textbooks, and the class is managed through something like Blackboard or Moodle, which are rather bad. Because the experience is so bad, online classes tend to be something people suffer through for the credit, rather than something engaging that they learn from.

iTunes U could change that, because it’s actually nice to use. Everything is in one place and well-organized. It’s hard to overstate how important that is for a student: because everything is in one place and they know how to use it, there’s much less mental overhead for figuring out what they’re supposed to do. They just do it. That’s especially important when you’re taking a course online, because whether the student does their studying and assignments depends on their motivation to do so.


The new iBooks application includes digital textbooks, with books from McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. These aren’t static books, either—they’re what you’d get if you combined an Inkling textbook’s capabilities with Push Pop Press’s UI concepts. Textbooks can include video, Keynote presentations, 3D images, interactive images (for example, you can inspect different parts of a cell membrane) and chapter reviews.

Those interactive elements are important, because textbooks can more effectively convey certain types of information that’s difficult to do on a static page, but what’s most important is how good the reading experience is, and how easy it is to take notes. We’ve had digital textbooks for a while on the desktop, but they were never very good for those two reasons: they were difficult to read and take notes with. After using one of Apple’s new textbooks, though, they nailed it. Text is clear and, well, easy to read. Taking notes and highlighting text is easier in iBooks than it is in a real book; to highlight something, you just slide your finger from where you want the highlight to start to where you want it to end, and to making a note is just as easy.

iBooks also has a study cards feature, which takes the textbook’s glossary and highlighted items and turns them into flash cards, and it works really well. It’s a perfect example of what makes digital textbooks so convincing.

And textbooks are $14.99 each, or less. $14.99. Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. Less than a night at the movie theatre. I’ve paid $250 for a single textbook before. $14.99 is what’s known as a big deal.

This isn’t exciting because Apple’s the first company to create worthwhile digital textbooks. That honor goes to Inkling. It’s exciting because Apple’s the only company that is in a position to completely change how we learn, and iBooks certainly has the power to do so. For the first time ever, elementary and high school students will be able to replace twenty pounds of books with a one-and-a-half pound device. They won’t need to decide between bringing a textbook home for homework and a backpack that strains their back. They won’t have to worry about forgetting a book. It’ll all be in a paper-sized computer that they can carry with them everywhere they go.