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Apple’s Electronic Textbook Takes Gutenberg to a New Level

Article by James W. Guthrie January 20, 2012 //   4 minute read

Apple Profits and Students’ Academic Achievement Will Both Increase Apple’s January 19th public announcement of an agreement with McGraw Hill to make K-12 mathematics textbooks available online through iTunes creates a 360-degree win.   Individual students or entire schools can now read texts on an iPad, laptop, Kindle, or other e-readers. The individual book price is likely to be $15.  This is a vast saving over the usual $75 individual price per conventional book. In addition to dollar savings, the electronic version is virtually weightless, in contrast to the spine-numbing two or three deadweight pounds of printed text.  A single book is not such a weight issue.  The problem comes with five or six books to be carried throughout a student day or to be taken home after school. The price is not much of financial savings for public school students or school systems.  A $75 school purchased text is usually passed through three to five generations of student users.  However, 5 million private school students will benefit, and there are many other advantages as well. Here are some of the likely consequences of a seemingly simple corporate announcement.

  • Apple sales will soar yet higher.  The company will sell more iPads and iTunes will claim an approximate 30 percent royalty from publishers for each text.
  • Amazon, with its splendid Kindle, will likely benefit from the spillover.
  • Textbook publishers and writers will now be able to update texts and sell revisions annually instead of every five years.
  • Textbooks will be more widely read because they will become far more portable.
  • Textbooks will become more interesting as a consequence of the visual enhancements, animation possibilities, reference reach, and connectivity of electronics over print.
  • A boost in creativity of textbook authors and educators that will be unleashed by writing for and selling into the new medium.
  • Savvy school districts can now negotiate new electronic volume discounts.
  • Family health costs and chiropractor visits will decline as students no longer have to heft book-filled backpacks that would challenge a Navy Seal

However, the likely real winner is added student achievement.  None of the above captures what may be the long run advantage of the new wave of eTexts.  The electronic medium facilitates better instruction by permitting far easier and more subtle embedding of tests in texts.  Contrary to populist anti-test railings, a learner’s frequent review and assessment of encountered or presented content has a powerful payoff in cognitive gain.  It is estimated that spending up to 80 percent of learning time in metacognitive, or actively reflecting upon what one is learning, offers huge returns in academic achievement. The conversions of printed texts to e-readers will not by itself revolutionize American education nor immediately elevate our students’ scores to be internationally competitive.  Regardless, it is a most positive move and may well give Steve Jobs a longer lasting and more significant historic legacy than simply digitizing popular entertainment. This post written by James W. Guthrie, Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute.