Rumor: Apple Wants YOU To Make Your Own Digital Textbooks

We’re very excited about Thursday’s Apple announcement. It’s rare that the tech giant announces something that so directly impacts education. Sure, the iPad announcement made waves and had obvious education ramifications but this is a rare event that’s got us glued to the rumor mill. Here’s the latest gossip in the form of excerpts from Ars Technica:

Apple is slated to announce the fruits of its labor on improving the use of technology in education at its special media event on Thursday, January 19. While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books—the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak—and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

So far, Apple has largely embraced the ePub 2 standard for its iBooks platform, though it has added a number of HTML5-based extensions to enable the inclusion of video and audio for some limited interaction. The recently-updated ePub 3 standard obviates the need for these proprietary extensions, which in some cases make iBook-formatted e-books incompatible with other e-reader platforms. Apple is expected to announce support for the ePub 3 standard for iBooks going forward.

GarageBand for e-books

At the same time, however, authoring standards-compliant e-books (despite some promises to the contrary) is not as simple as running a Word document of a manuscript through a filter. The current state of software tools continues to frustrate authors and publishers alike, with several authors telling Ars that they wish Apple or some other vendor would make a simple app that makes the process as easy as creating a song in GarageBand.

Our sources say Apple will announce such a tool on Thursday.

“When you think about what Apple is doing… they are selling tens of thousands of iPads into K-12 institutions,” MacInnis told Ars. “What are they doing with those iPads? They don’t really replace textbooks, because there’s not very much content on offer,” he said.

Don’t expect that content to come directly from Apple, however. “Practically speaking, Apple does not want to get into the content publishing business,” MacInnis said. Like the music and movie industries, Apple has instead built a distribution platform as well as hardware to consume it—but Apple isn’t a record label or production studio.

Mobile, social learning

Technology-in-education expert Dr. William Rankin also believes digital books will expand with tools that will enable social interactions among textbook users. Rankin, who serves as Director of Educational Innovation of Abilene Christian University and has extensively researched the use of mobile devices in the classroom, was one of three authors of a white paper on the effects of digital convergence on learning titled “Code/X,” published in 2009.

Such digital texts would let students interact with information in visual ways, such as 3D models, graphs, and videos. They would also allow students to create links to additional texts, audio, and other supporting materials. Furthermore, students could share those connections with classmates and colleagues.

“What we really believe is important is the role of social networking in a converged learning environment,” Rankin told Ars. “We’re already seeing that in Inkling’s platform, and Kno‘s journaling feature. Future digital texts should allow students to layer all kind of other data, such as pictures, and notes, and then share that with the class or, ideally, anyone.”

Exactly how what Apple announces on Thursday will impact digital publishing isn’t certain, however.

Steve Jobs’ pet project

We know that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was working on addressing learning and digital textbooks for some time, according to Walter Issacson’s biography. Jobs believed that textbook publishing was an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.”

According to our sources close to his efforts, however, Jobs’ personal involvement was perhaps more significant that even his biography purports. Jobs worked on this project for several years, and our understanding is that the final outcome was slated to be announced in October 2011 in conjunction with the iPhone 4S. Those plans were postponed at the last minute, perhaps due to Jobs’ imminent death.

Despite the delay, however, ACU’s Rankin believes the time is right for a change to happen in the field. “We’re headed toward a completely digital future at ACU,” he told Ars. “A recent study showed that 82 percent of all higher education students nationwide will come to campus with a smartphone. We need to have resources and tools ready for these mobile, connected students.”


  1. edscler

    January 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

    You don’t think that your over-sensationalist headline is rather ridiculous and ill-advised? The US Director of the Office of Educational Technology, Karen Cator, said very clearly last year at Learning Without Frontiers 2011, London, that the US were planning to get rid of printed textbooks entirely and replace them with electronic handhelds, within the next two years. From which I gather that this is an educational policy, ie, law, and so not Apple’s responsibility at all as being the cause of said ‘destruction’.

    So, as positive a slant as your article may have, the headline, as seen in Twitter, may come across differently, with many people happy to jump on the Hate Apple bandwagon simply by looking at the headline, and not the article itself, let alone analyzing the reality that Apple is simply responding/ anticipating public demand and changes in educational policy. Next time, possibly a different headline, echoing the mood of the article, might be a better idea?

    • edudemic

      January 17, 2012 at 11:39 am

      @edscler We agree and have actually changed the article title to a less aggressive form. This is also in response to a recent feature in TIME where they question the source of the quote. Basically, someone quoted an Apple insider saying they’re going to “digitally destroy” textbooks. That’s why we used that term. It’s been amended now though. Thanks so much!


  2. morellok

    January 18, 2012 at 7:54 am

    I have been using the book module in Moodle to create a “textbook” for each unit of my physics course. It is easy to use, can link to documents or copy and paste the content of document to the page, embed live webpages and videos. It makes for a very clean look to the Moodle course’s front page and makes it very easy for students to follow the sequence of materials they are to use. If you are using Moodle as your LMS I would highly recommend investing the time to explore this feature. A good way to start is to use it as a daily plan book for students to use in preparing for class with information about what topics will be covered, what reading needs to be done before class, due dates for assignments, and when tests will be available. Since it is straight forward typing there is not much of a learning curve and gives you the opportunity to become familiar with the format. I do not suggest trying to make one book for entire course as it becomes rather unwieldy