My First Few Questions About Apple's Education News

Judging from the turnout for our live coverage of Apple’s education event–which was much sparser than for something like the iPad 2 announcement–a lot of tech enthusiasts lost interest in today’s news when they figured out that it didn’t involve any new hardware. That’s a shame. The news–a new textbook-friendly version of iBooks, a free book-creation tool called iBooks Author, and a spiffier version of the iTunes U courseware app–has as much or more potential to make its mark on the world as any new iPad or iPhone could. Everything looks really, really cool.

But while the folks who did comment during our liveblog–a smart bunch–and the ones I ran into here at the event were impressed by much of what they saw, they also had questions. Lots of them. And so do I. Here are a few of them:

Just how likely is it that large numbers of great big school systems will buy into this? They’re not known for boldly seizing new opportunities. And even if a $500 iPad and $14.99 digital textbooks make more economic sense than a whole stack of $60 textbooks, how will schools acquire the iPads and textbooks and distribute them? Apple didn’t really address this during the event, but everyone I chatted with in the demo room wondered about it.

Is it an issue that these textbooks are iPad-only? You can’t read them on a Mac–let alone a Windows PC or a Kindle–even though you use a Mac to create them. I don’t blame Apple for its iPad-centric approach to textbooks, especially since the standards don’t exist to push out truly rich, interactive textbooks across multiple platforms. But I wonder whether schools will be wary about wedding themselves to one tablet, and whether any of them will have the guts to ask Apple if it plans to release an Android version.

Can we trust kids with iPads? College students, sure. But how about K-12 ones? (Apple’s Phil Schiller said that iPads are more durable than dead-tree textbooks because they don’t get dog-eared. But textbooks don’t shatter when you drop them.)

Will this democratize publishing? I came away from the event excited about the new stuff’s potential to change education–but I also started thinking about publishing my own books using iBooks Author. It’s already possible to self-publish for the Kindle, the Nook, and other platforms, but with iBooks Author, whipping up a beautiful, beautifully interactive book is theoretically within the reach of normal folks who know how to use a word processor. (Apple provides themes that help non-designers create books that aren’t eyesores.)

How about the competition? Amazon has dabbled in textbooks with the increasingly outdated Kindle DX and textbook rental, but it hasn’t set out to change the world. Startup Inkling is out to change the world, but it’s just getting started, and now it’s competing with Apple. I’ll be curious to see if Apple will be a one-of-a-kind player or part of a bigger revolution.

More thoughts later. For now, I’m interested in yours…

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