Yesterday in New York, Apple took the wraps off of a suite of new and upgraded tools aimed at modernizing and monetizing the way educational textbooks are authored, distributed and used. iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U may or may not do for – or is that do to? – the education industry what iTunes did to the music biz, and Kno will be the first to tell you that plenty of folks “invented” eTextbooks long before Apple booked the Guggenheim for this week’s dog and pony show. But Apple has a knack for making everything old new again, and arguably better than ever at that. And you’d be a fool not to recognize the potential impact their $400B market cap committing to literally any industry right now.

Apple’s SVP for Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, closed his presentation Thursday by invoking one of co-founder CEO Steve Jobs’ favorite ways of describing the company. “Apple exists at the intersection of liberal arts and technology,” Schiller said. I remember sitting at an Apple media event awhile back when Jobs uttered those words onstage. Like many others, my first reaction that day was, “Add ‘commerce’ to that intersection and maybe I’ll believe you.” But really, that’s a cynical way to approach something that’s a given: Apple’s a for-profit company, so of course commerce is involved. Yes, they’re committed to driving revenue, but they’re also in the unique position of having driven so much revenue over the past five to ten years that they can literally afford to lean on pure innovation and total upheaval of related industries as the cornerstones of their business model.

Education is a Business, Too

So here’s the thing about Apple’s big move (back) into the education business: It’s happening at the intersection of liberal arts and technology and commerce. They’re in it to make money as well as to innovate around the textbook and educational resources industries. And, frankly, I don’t have a problem at all with that. There’s nothing wrong with making a buck off of education in America, so long as you turn out quality products. Disagree with me? Then I sure hope you haven’t seen Harry Potter and don’t have any Clifford the Big Red Dog dolls in your home. I used to work in the Scholastic building on lower Broadway in Manhattan; it literally is the house that Clifford and Harry built.

I used to be a teacher. I taught computers to grades K-12 and also worked with teachers and administrators around the use of technology at the classroom, school, and district levels. And while conversations around public vs private, and charter schools and vouchers, are controversial and important discussions for another setting, I will say that if Apple, Inc. and the rest of us really want to improve America’s schools, it’s high time we all viewed education as an essential industry and teaching as a prestigious profession. Look at the countries topping the various lists ranking “The Best Schools on Earth.” Whatever measure you use, you’re not going to find a strong correlation between high ranking and number of iPads per student. But you will find correlations between countries with strong schools and cultures that place teaching on a career pedestal alongside medicine and the law.

So here’s the other thing about Apple’s big back to school move: Textbooks, computers, and whatever iBooks Author winds up spitting out to iPads across the land are simply tools. Like any tools, tablets loaded with 21st Century readers need to be wielded by wizened and skilled practitioners to realize their maximum potential. Even the most interactive eTextbooks are but materials – resources for educators and students to use – and not “education” in and of themselves.

Textbooks and Politics

Apple Distance Learning - BistroApple’s getting deeper into the textbook business. Terrific. The textbook industry of today’s America is technologically deficient, environmentally unfriendly, and arguably too politically influential when it comes to what gets taught in our schools. Houghton Mifflin, Pearson, and McGraw Hill account for 90% of current textbook production, or so Phil Schiller said onstage Thursday. So let’s shake it up and see what happens! I’m all for some fresh blood in the industry. Be they Apple or Kno or the folks in charge of maintaing the ePub standard, it’s high time somebody with smarts and influence figured out a way to make quality digital materials available to schools on a widespread basis.

Then again, after speaking to their stranglehold on the ed publishing biz, Apple announced partnerships with the aforementioned textbook triumvirate. So maybe the new blood is really just the old blood with a sleek tablet tucked into its book bag. Time will tell.

Whatever happens to the textbook industry now, here’s my point: textbooks aren’t teachers, and iPads aren’t education. School is about more than book learning, learning from textbooks is about discussion and debate as much as reading, and all the thin, light, and powerful gesture-based computers in the world won’t make anybody any “smarter” without human beings figuring out how best to deploy them in educational contexts.

There’s already a lot of concern around the notion of Apple creating an iTunes-style closed ecosystem that could force schools to buy iPads in order to get access to textbooks they want and need. Frankly, I’m not worried about that. Like I said, if you can build a better mousetrap America will reward you with brand loyalty, for better or for worse. The American educational system is badly in need of a makeover, upheaval, and/or infusion of fresh blood. It’s not going to come all at once, and it’s not going to be ruled by any one organization – even one so powerful as Apple, Inc. Our national school system, such that it is, is too big, too messy, and ruled by too many politically opposed constituents for Tim Cook and Co. to just waltz in and take over our classrooms like so many digital music stores.

I also don’t think Apple wants to rule education. I think they’re interested in education but really just want to build better mousetraps wherever they see fit and reap the financial and cultural rewards of doing so. The iPod was a better mp3 player and the iPhone was a better smartphone, and both paved the way for Apple to get into “non-tech” markets like selling music and TV shows. That’s been working out for them, and so they’re trying to reinvent the textbook. If Apple can improve the way educational materials are created and distributed then I for one am all for them enjoying the many potential fruits of that labor, be they solely financial or couched in “The iPeople who iSaved American iEducation” hyperbole.

In Some Ways It Will, In Some Ways It Won’t

More importantly, though, I’m not concerned about Apple DRMing their way to dictating what our kids learn because I know we’re still a long way out from “One iPad Per Student.” And we’re even further away from any sort of magical world where kids dwell in utopian classrooms happily filled with technologically enhanced, individually paced learning materials and governed by well-trained, professionally supported, and societally beloved teachers with the time and resources to nurture all of their students. I’m all for that sort of utopia, one that smartly mixes good teachers with good tools backed by solid pedagogy. But I think it’s still a ways off.

Steve Jobs knew this, and he said as much more than 15 years ago. In a 1996 interview with Wired that got a lot of press this week, Jobs spoke about the problems he then saw in American education and what technology could – or couldn’t  – do about them:

I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.


You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.

Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.

It’s not as simple as you think when you’re in your 20s – that technology’s going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won’t.

Technology is a tool, and we need tools to build and fix things. The better the tool, the better the potential results. But as with any tool, even the best open source eTextbooks and DRM-wrapped iBooks (TM) will only do so much to help solve our educational problems on their own. In some ways they will, but in others they surely will not.