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Grading Apple's digital textbook technology

Joel Mathis | May 29, 2013
Shortly after his world history students began a pilot program testing a digital textbook for the iPad, Ken Halla noticed something different: His students were actually reading their textbooks.

That's helped teacher Marsha Messinger to become a believer. "I think the iPad ... has a jump on education," she said.

What's next
The great digital textbooks that are already out there are likely to help more schools make the move to adopt the technology, said Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Cullinane. Both the hardware and the software are ready now, she said.

"Four or five years ago, you saw early adopters struggling," she said. "Now they can make the jump easier."

Who will dominate digital textbooks?: But the battle over who will dominate the education market--or how--has yet to be settled. Amazon is competing in the digital textbook market, letting users rent digital textbooks for up to 80 percent off the original hardcover cost. This can reduce the cost of a textbook, for example, from $185 in hardcover to just more than $40 for a digital rental. It's possible to read Amazon's books on a $200 Kindle Fire, or by using the free Kindle app for iPad, Android tablet, PC, or Mac.

Publishers and other education companies are developing apps and other digital instructional materials that will work no matter what platform they're delivered on. Students in one classroom might access the same materials using an iPad, a Nexus tablet, an iPod touch, or even a netbook. iBooks are just one of the many options for those content creators.

One good reason for that variety: Some educators still balk at the cost of the iPad, even though the iPad mini starts at $329 and an iPad 2 (Apple offers older generations of the device to educators) at $399.

Expensive hardware, inexpensive content: Back in California, though, Archbishop Mitty's Anderson thinks he's figured out the way his school will make up for the hardware costs: Cheaper content. "It's so inexpensive," he said. "The traditional textbook was over $100, and this (iBook) is $14.99."

Seeing a digital future: Creative Strategies' Bajarin said that textbook publishers--like newspaper publishers before them--have proven reluctant to give up the income associated with printed-paper products. But, they're starting to find that the audience--in this case, educators--wants digital formats.

"The good news is that all the education systems, whether they be elementary or college, clearly understand that the move is on to move everything to ebooks," Bajarin said.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Cullinane agreed. "Almost 100 percent of the conversation we're having with districts, there's (now) a digital component to that conversation."

And that transition has educators like Anderson excited. He's looking forward to a broader array of materials to use in Archbishop Mitty's classrooms.

"Our students are really using the iPads for positive education reasons," he said. "I'd love to have every textbook in the iBookstore."


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