More Apples For The Teacher

Apples and education have always gone together. But will teachers bite for the new toys from Cupertino?

Zingy, interactive text books on an iPad  that are profusely illustrated, talk and show movies and automatically create  flash cards from any keyword which the student has touched is the stuff  to rouse the sleepiest heads. And Apple has finally convinced the major text book publishers - as Amazon could not - that there's a way to make the same money (in the end) by charging a lot less ($14.99 tops) for their e-books than for hardback equivalents. An e-textbook will not be transferable, sellable. If you want to share it, you'll have to loan the iPad it's stored on. And while printed text books are usually updated every five years, the e-texts will be revised every annum, making last year's version seem so . . . . 2011.

The harder part will be convincing teachers that they can and should download  and start using Apple's new  self-publishing iBooks Author  and iTunes U curriculum  applications. The concept is  for educators to make  their entire customized course  available on an iPad (or Mac computer) - everything from class topics and lectures  to reading and writing  assignments. Tap on the homework link and the iPad automatically goes to the right chapter and verse. Finish that section  and the gizmo  jumps to the next reading assignment, even in another book (presuming the student's paid for the content, or the teacher's figured out how to circuitously cut-and-paste it in.) Oh, and when you're done, a check mark (what, no gold star?) is automatically entered next to the assignment.

Younger, computer -literate  teachers will be able to process this stuff in a wink. And the savviest will make delicious eye candy of their  electronic course packages - a selling point to boost class enrollment and their chance of getting tenure. Electronic publish or perish, right? The for-profit, distant learning organizations like University of Phoenix and DeVry which already teach by computer will jump on this stuff in a big way. 

But  i'm thinking that for your more seasoned educators - high school and college - used to lecturing from  wrinkled old notes and handing out reading assignments run off at the copy center, this whole process of  iPad transferrence  will prove daunting and in the end discouraging, if few students feel compelled to actually show up for class. There's a lot more going on at iTunes U  than just posting lectures on line - as many teachers already do on YouTube - or assignments on (a closer competitor.)  Apple may need to send evangelists out into the field to jump start the conversion process.

Then there's the whole issue of hardware cost. Apple's deal with the major educational publishers (Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill, Pearson ) is exclusive, meaning their e-textbooks won't be available on rival, cheaper Android tablets. Today, an iPad 2 starts at $499 for a version with 16GB of RAM (random access memory). Given that just one semester of  multimedia-ized college texts could  fill up that flash, a student will probably want to bump up to  a 32GB iPad, currently $599.

 I'm thinking Apple hasn't yet filled in all the blanks in this pretty new picture, though. When the iPad 3 is introduced in a month or two -  boasting a higher resolution screen more comfortable for reading reams of text -   there's a very good chance Apple will do what it has with older model phones. They'll keep today's iPad 2 in the line while radically reducing  its' price tag, to match and stave off the $200-$250 tablet competition. Yet even at that price, it's hard to imagine today's hard-pressed public and parochial schools finding the bucks to swap out old text books for the new world order. 

How about  gripes that the iPad is not appropriate for serious writing chores? At last week's CES, both  iHome and iLuv showcased  iPad work stations (around $150) that prop up the tablet, work with  a nice wireless keyboard, have better speakers and build in ports for adding/charging  other accesories.  Demonstrators were touting these setups as "perfect for hotel room guests" but maybe they had dorm room occupants on their minds, too?