How Electronic Textbooks Could Really Change Education

Electronic textbooks, which many politicians lately try to present as the solution for the high cost of education supplies, have perhaps been somewhat overpromised. They aren’t widely available. They don’t help people save much money. Students don’t like them.

But recently Apple announced a new program last week to sell electronic textbooks. Such books would sell for about $15.

This is an interesting, and perhaps promising, endeavor. But wait, Matt Yglesias wonders. Shouldn’t these textbooks just be free? As he writes at Slate:

The most daring idea is one that Apple isn’t trying yet. It could simply hire people to write textbooks, give them away for free, and pitch low-end iPads to school districts as a cheaper alternative to traditional textbook purchasing.

The company seems to have shied away from that kind of daring frontal assault on the textbook industry, instead partnering with some incumbent textbook makers to show off the new digital format. This is much less promising. …Digital textbooks are cheaper than paper ones, but also kill off the used book market and require expensive hardware purchases. This casts doubt on the eventual savings to students or schools unclear.

He’s got a point. Offering the textbooks for would build lots of new Apple customers, and fundamentally change the way the textbook publishing industry (the real entity responsible for the high cost of textbooks) operates. If electronic textbooks are free, bookstores can’t get away with selling them for $100.

But, lacking real innovation, the company has resorted to platitudes about the glories of fake innovation. Apple says that:

A Multi-Touch textbook on iPad is a gorgeous, full-screen experience full of interactive diagrams, photos, and videos. No longer limited to static pictures to illustrate the text, now students can dive into an image with interactive captions, rotate a 3D object, or have the answer spring to life in a chapter review. They can flip through a book by simply sliding a finger along the bottom of the screen. Highlighting text, taking notes, searching for content, and finding definitions in the glossary are just as easy. And with all their books on a single iPad, students will have no problem carrying them wherever they go.

Apple says that the tech textbooks will make the subject matter “more immersive and compelling” and “make a profound difference in the way teachers teach and students learn.”

Well no. Probably not. A company can, as Yglesias points out, add a lot of new technology components to a trigonometry textbook. The fundamental problem it has as far as attracting student interest, however, is that the subject matter is still trigonometry.

It seems what Apple is doing here is talking up a product by pretending to address a textbook problem that doesn’t exist (the books are too boring to help people learn) while avoiding addressing the real problem (textbooks are too extensive).

In truth, textbooks will always be boring. That’s not a problem; it’s just how it is. Making the material compelling is largely up to the teacher.

The one place where technology can matter in education has to do with reducing its cost. That’s the only way a company like Apple can make a relevant dent in the market. The products are full of dazzling features, colors, and graphics. But that’s probably not what the textbook market needs; it needs a new pricing model.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer