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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.

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.

"How crazy is that?" said Halla, a ninth-grade teacher at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia. "To me, it's really great when the kids get excited to read."

Of course, Halla admits, the $15 iBook textbook his students used--World History: Patterns of Interaction from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt--went beyond the usual text-on-paper approach found in textbooks. Students were taking interactive quizzes, watching videos; even touring ancient European caves to look at prehistoric drawings.

"To call it a book anymore," Halla said, "is a false pretense."

It's been more than a year since Apple held an event to announce a new focus on education. At that event in January 2012, the company launched the free iBooks 2 app () for interacting with multimedia textbooks and also the free iBooks Author (), an app that lets writers and publishers create their own digital texts. The aim? To finally create a digital textbook market, using the iPad as the platform.

"We think Apple is uniquely positioned to be the first to make this work," Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide marketing, said at the time.

As the school year comes to a close, Macworld decided to check in on Apple's progress. Here's what we found.

Early days still for digital textbooks
A year later, Apple's digital textbook effort still seems to be in the early stages. According to the company's public statements, more than 4.5 million iPads have been sold to U.S. schools--and yes, more than 10,000 books have been published using iBooks Author. More than 2,500 schools across the country are now using the iPad in the classroom. Where they're used, the tablet and the digital textbooks find enthusiastic responses.

But there's a long way to go before students using iPads to read their iBooks becomes the rule, rather than the leading-edge exception, in American education. One of the biggest problems is still a lack of textbooks.

Waiting on textbooks:  "Textbooks for middle school aren't available," said Marsha Messinger, language arts and social studies teacher at Robert Saligman Middle School of Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia. "They [the textbook publishers] are working their way from college down."

"It's moving steadily forward," said Tim Bajarin, president at Creative Strategies Inc., a tech industry research firm. He predicts that it will take two to three more years for the digital textbook industry to reach critical mass, and that he believes Apple now has a head start. "In many ways, you have to look at this as an Apple evangelistic move. The textbook industry has been relatively slow."

 

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