When I was in high school, I wanted my MTV. Today's students want their iPad.
High school students have been eyeing the iPad and now their wish might come true. Apple is making a strong push for iPads to be practically required in classrooms.
Last week, Apple unveiled iBooks 2 for the iPad, a storefront for multimedia high school textbooks. Major publishers are on board, such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as other educational publishers, such as DK Publishing and E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
Apple also began offering a free Mac OS app, called iBooks Author, for teachers to create multimedia textbooks complete with text, video and interactive features. Most e-book authoring tools are pricey and complex, but Apple says iBooks Author is simple to use. Think GarageBand for e-books.
TJ Houston, director of IT at Huron City Schools in Ohio, says the timing is right for iBooks 2 as many teachers have a keen interest in creating their own textbooks.
"I was talking to a teacher about iBooks Author, and she told me that she was going to do her master's program on creating her own textbook," says Houston. "We're an all-Mac district, which means I can push out iBooks Author to every teacher."
The iPad promises to bring high schools into the digital age. Imagine students virtually dissecting frogs in a multimedia biology textbook in preparation for the real thing. Multimedia textbooks could be updated with the most recent information regularly. Students won't have to lug backpacks full of heavy books anymore. Unlike laptops, the iPad's battery life lasts the entire school day.
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There's just one little problem. Who is going to pay for all these iPads? Strapped public schools don't have that kind of money.
Publishers plan to sell multimedia textbooks for $15-a-pop, whereas the traditional textbook costs $75. But this doesn't mean schools can roll these savings into iPad purchases. That's because the traditional textbook lasts for five years, but publishers won't allow a multimedia textbook to be passed from student to student for multiple years. Do the math, and the publishers are charging the same amount; schools won't save a dime.
(Terry McGraw of McGraw-Hill told AllThingsD that McGraw-Hill will sell multimedia textbooks directly to each student, who can keep the textbook but won't be able to resell or pass it along to another student the following year. It's still unclear whether or not a school can pass along a multimedia textbook if the school owns the iPad and purchased the textbook.)
Huron City Schools has been experimenting with iPads in the classroom—100 iPads in a four-building, K-12 campus serving 1,500 students. IT director Houston even co-authored an iPhone app for staff, students and parents to stay better informed. How can the school get an iPad for every student?
"We're definitely investigating a bring-your-own-tech program," Houston says.
All of this leads to another big question: Will parents have a choice in the technology or must they get iPads? Houston says multimedia textbooks built on iBooks Author will likely use open format standards and be able to run on non-Apple devices. But multimedia textbooks available on iBooks 2 is another matter.
If Apple pushes an iPad-only classroom, Houston doesn't really mind. He says Apple has been a great partner with education, more than any other vendor by far. For instance, Apple provides a free event on education every other month. "I've never been approached by Google," Houston says.
The economics of getting iPads into students' hands is only one problem, albeit a big one. Another hurdle is getting teachers to embrace the digital textbook. They worry students might use iPads to secretly research answers and cheat on tests. Or students might be checking Facebook, playing games or surfing inappropriate Websites.
In fact, the inability to monitor a student's use of the iPad in the classroom was a deal-killer at Brother Rice High School, a private all-boys Catholic school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The iPad received a failing grade in remote monitoring from teachers there.
With iPads, students could "possibly be smarter" than teachers, Houston says. "The teacher also needs to take advantage of the iPad. I'd hate for a teacher to use the iPad as just a normal textbook."
Despite these challenges, Houston thinks the digital classroom is around the corner—the advantages are just too great. He hopes to learn more about Apple's pricing plans at next week's event on education. And he's planning to roll out a campus-wide wireless network next year.
Does Houston foresee an iPad in every student's hand? "We're getting to that point where it's almost necessary," he says.