Apple scores with digital textbooks and app –

The sizzling rate at which e-books are growing suggests that digital textbooks almost certainly will be the norm when your kids’ kids are in school. What we don’t know is how quickly a transition to a mostly all-digital textbook education system might happen, how it could affect the way students learn, and which companies will be leading the charge.

Personal Tech

By Edward C. Baig

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Two weeks ago, Apple declared its intention to be at the head of the class, with the unveiling of the iBooks 2 for iPad app and the iBooks textbooks that are the first to exploit the app.

I’ve spent time diving into some of these textbooks on the original iPad and the iPad 2. Initial works in algebra, biology and chemistry come from major educational publishers McGraw-Hill and Pearson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and DK are also early publishing partners (the latter produces books on dinosaurs, insects and mammals).

Though I encountered some unfortunate crashes and bugs — Apple has a software fix coming soon — multitouch digital textbooks, when working smoothly, are engaging in ways that were simply not possible with the textbooks I grew up with. Digital versions promise instant search and easy navigation. They’re rich in interactive animations, pictures and videos. It’s better to see an animated tour of the genome in E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth than just to read about it. The various books let you consult study cards, create bookmarks, drag your finger to highlight passages and add notes. And textbook authors can update material to keep it current.

The other obvious A-plus benefit, true of any e-book but especially comforting to a student schlepping from class to class, is that you can lug the digital equivalents of heavy print textbooks without breaking your back.

Still, Apple and other companies hoping to make a big play in the digital textbook space face arduous tests. There aren’t many available textbooks for iBooks 2 yet, in part because Apple, as usual, kept things close to the vest prior to launch.

And no matter how compelling a digital textbook might be, it is only useful to a student if the teacher or school decides that this is indeed the textbook to use with their class.

To encourage development, Apple launched iBooks Author, a free authoring tool for the Mac that encourages anyone to produce their own iBook textbooks, cookbooks, how-tos and other works. Apple says more than 600,000 copies of the tool have been downloaded since launch. Authors can distribute the books for free. But if they put the iBook textbook up for sale, they must do so through Apple’s iBookstore. (Authors can use the content in other digital and print formats, Apple says.) So the supply of digital textbooks should look a lot better by next school year.

Another question mark is the iPad. Not every parent or school district is likely to buy iPads, which start at $499 each, for every student, even if educational discounts lower the cost a bit.

The first textbook titles concentrate on high school curricula and are priced at $14.99 or less, well below most of their print counterparts. The first two chapters of Wilson’s book are free.

Apple has designs on the rest of the K-12 market, too, but hasn’t said much about the prospects for iBooks on college campuses, though you can bet it will become an area of emphasis. But given how much college textbooks cost — well into three digits in many cases — it’s hard to imagine Apple matching $14.99 pricing for them.

Apple has competition, too. Already, a couple of start-ups, Kno and Inkling, produce slick digital textbooks for the iPad. And I’d expect and Barnes & Noble to respond in some way.

Moreover, except for the odd torn page, you never have to worry about technical issues with old-fashioned textbooks. The Wilson book, among others I tested on the original iPad, froze. Performance on the iPad 2 was a bit poky at times, too. That Apple is producing a fix is good: A student who fails to do his assignments would be hard-pressed to say, “The iPad ate my homework.”

Apple has certainly provided authors and publishers with tools that can provide compelling high-tech textbooks. But it’s up to those authors and publishers to deliver the goods. As Wilson writes in Life on Earth, “Although we believe in the power of visual storytelling, we are careful to keep special-effects glamour in its place. Our animations are crafted to achieve high-quality instruction, not box office.”

The bottom line

Apple’s iBooks 2 and iBooks 2 textbooks

Pro. Multitouch books engaging, easy to search and keep current and feature videos, animations, diagrams. First high school books inexpensive.

Con. Very few titles. Buggy software. Requires iPad, but not every student can afford.

E-mail: Follow @EdBaig on Twitter.

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