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.
Along with the details we were able to gather from our sources, we also spoke to two experts in the field of digital publishing to get a clearer picture of the significance of what Apple is planning to announce.
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.
And Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis agrees that such a move would be very likely. MacInnis previously worked on education projects at Apple before leaving the company in 2009 to pursue his own ideas about creating interactive digital books. Inkling currently offers a variety of digital textbooks with interactive features, including the ability to share notes with classmates and instructors, via an iPad app.
“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.
But what Apple does provide is industry-leading tools for content production, such as Logic or Final Cut Pro, to help create content. The company also produces tools like GarageBand or iMovie that make such production accessible to a much wider audience.
Will Apple launch a sort of GarageBand for e-books? “That’s what we believe you’re about to see,” MacInnis told Ars (and our other sources agree). “Publishing something to ePub is very similar to publishing web content. Remember iWeb? That iWeb code didn’t just get flushed down the toilet—I think you’ll see some of [that code] repurposed.”
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.
In that document, Rankin and his colleagues laid out their vision for the future of learning, which included an always-on, always-networked digital device called a “Talos.” That device turned out to be very similar to the iPad that Apple announced just six months later.
“What we saw coming was a change in the kinds of places that learning would happen,” Rankin told Ars. Since the device would always be with the student, it would give her access to information anytime and anywhere. “For that, you need a different kind of book.”
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.
“Think about how meaningful simply authoring and publishing to an iPad will be for K-12,” MacInnis said. “However, it might not be great for molecular biology.”
MacInnis sees Apple as possibly up-ending the traditional print publishing model for the low-end, where basic information has for many years remained locked behind high textbook prices. Apple can “kick up dust with the education market,” which could then create visibility for platforms like Inkling. This could then serve as a sort of professional Logic-type tool for interactive textbook creation complement to Apple’s “GarageBand for e-books.”
“There will be a spectrum of tools and consumers, and we will continue to fit on that spectrum,” MacInnis opined. “I don’t know if the publishing industry will react to it with fear or enthusiasm.”
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.”