The Digital Textbook Revolution

On January 19, 2012, Apple made a significant announcement that could change the educational landscape forever. There are several parts to the announcement – one is a software application that enables anyone to create a ‘text book’ and the other is a distribution platform for textbooks inside of the already popular iBooks application (a free download that runs on the iPad or iPhone.).

iBooks 2 is an upgrade to the iBooks application that is the primary reading application of iOS. The application allows for easy highlighting and annotation – and enables quick dictionary lookups for words that need defining. The application has the ability to display full-color, interactive, multimedia content which means audio, video, and 3D diagrams can be touched, rotated and explored. The application also adds a few additional features like, turning notes, highlights, and annotations into an interface resembling browsable index cards (flash cards).

iBooks Author is a free application that enables authors (anyone running Mac OS X Lion) to develop and publish their content and distribute it in the iBookstore. iBooks Author enables embedding Keynote presentations into books to become interactive elements and, for the more technically savvy, developers can build ‘widgets’ in HTML5 and JavaScript that can ‘run’ on a page in an iBook.

In my opinion, this announcement is both evolutionary and revolutionary.


As I’ve already written, the iPad is a great form factor to change the nature of textbooks. The possibility of carrying around 100s or 1000s of books in one device is a compelling argument alone to consider getting textbooks to be digital.

Even though the iPad is only 2 years old, I think it’s a natural evolution for textbooks to move to a digital platform. Everything in our world is being digitized (or will be) and it makes sense for text  books to be able to be updated in real time (any time) at a cost that is virtually free rather than the investment it takes to republish and distribute millions of books every few years.

It’s also evolutionary for Apple to apply their talents for creating great software products to create a platform for authors and publishers to easily (relatively) create and distribute their work. With iBooks Author authoring and publishing an e-Book becomes something accessible to the masses.


The revolutionary part is where things get interesting.

Not only does iBooks Author create the potential to engage everyone in the education and publishing industries (making everyone a publisher is a real equalizing and disruptive change to the status quo), it also creates the possibility to turn the learning equation on its head.

Because of the power of the iPad and all the other functions it can perform, I don’t think it will take long before we see textbooks incorporating elements of movies (drama), documentaries, multi-player role playing games, news casting, encyclopedias, dictionaries, language translators and more. For instance, embedding something like Google Earth into a book would allow for the power of Google Earth exploration within the context of a learning .

It makes sense to me that pedagogy and instructional methods will, at a minimum, evolve into a more interactive and dynamic activity. In the most extreme case I could imagine everything we know about teaching and learning being transformed just by the simple fact that a learner can have a device that enables not only a rich media experience of content but also serves so many functions at the same time (email, web browser, game console, video communicator, etc.) that the role of the teacher morphs into something completely different from what we’ve known or seen before.

We’ve already seen something like the Khan Academy flip traditional schooling upside down by having students ‘watching’ lectures on their own time outside of school and using the in school time for more collaborative and interactive activities with their peers (with teachers being more like coaches).

I can imagine this kind of thing happening more – but even different. The actual location where ‘learning’ takes place is no longer as important. But, as educators have been saying for a long time, meaning making (making connections) can shift to the group setting (like in schools).

At the same time as they announced iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, Apple also introduced a free application for the iPad called iTunes U. iTunes U used to be something that was accessible through the iTunes store and is a ‘virtual classroom’ in a sense. Until now it has offered classes from some of the leading universities. Now, it is also open to K-12 teachers and their students.

iTunes U – the application – now becomes something like a learning management app where teachers can post materials including syllabi, assignments, blog entries, updates, and anything they need to communicate with students AND, iTunes U incorporates both iBooks 2 content and iTunes U content.

This adds significant amount of content that anyone can have access to anywhere – as long as they have an iPad or an iPhone.


Apple has some hurdles to overcome in order for this revolution to take hold. At the announcement Apple’s Phil Schiller said that 1.5 million iPads were in use in education settings, leveraging more than 20,000 education applications. That’s a great start but in order for the textbook revolution to become complete all students will need to have access to an iPad. I imagine the option to purchase digital text books at $14.99 (I neglected to mention above that the major text book publishers have agreed to sell their digital text books for $14.99!) will drive a significant amount of demand (pull) from students and parents. But someone will still need to purchase these devices.

It will be interesting to see what kind of creativity is applied to financing and/or purchasing in order to enable large numbers of iPads to get into the hands of young people. Some would argue that college age students will adopt and adapt faster than younger students since many of them can make purchasing decisions on their own. Younger students will need their parents, their schools, or some foundation/philanthropy in order to take advantage of this technology.

What’s your take? Is iBooks Author and iBooks 2 evolutionary, revolutionary or ??


10 thoughts on “The Digital Textbook Revolution

    • Before you asked your question I didn’t – but your question spurred me to do a little research, so below is a list of a few of the schools in the bay area that are using iPads (not exhaustive and you should continue to do your own research to discover additional schools riding this wave):

      • Presidio Middle School
      • International High School
      • San Francisco University High School
      • San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School
      • St. Ignatius College Preparatory, San Francisco
      • Five Title I elementary schools: Garfield, Laura B. Anderson, Hawthorne, Longfellow and Lowell
      • University of San Francisco
      • South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale
      • Hillbrook School, Los Gatos
      • St. Hilary School in Tiburon
      • Wharton San Francisco
      • Palo Alto, Gunn High School
      • Lucille Nixon Elementary School near the Stanford campus
      • Stanford University
      • Santa Clara University, Law School
      • University of California-Berkeley
      • UC Santa Cruz
      • Monte Vista Christian School Watsonville
      • Alum Rock Union School District in East San Jose
      • San Juan Unified School District
    • Nice article! I love the idea of students being curators of digital content. We could also see something like the “see one, do one, teach one” model showing up where students slowly become teachers and older (or more experienced) learners are coaches/guides for younger (less experienced) learners.

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  2. What happens if that student breaks the i pad? Or what if they forget to charge the i Pad for class. What would they use?!

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  4. Great write up! We reposted it , with link and credit back here, to our blog! Having 2 kids of our own, my wife and I are big supporters of exposing them to technology while at the same time trying to institute a sense of responsibility and control. It will only help them, it already has. Just gotta keep the video games and instagram posts at bay!

    Sean and JoAnne

    • Here are a few that I could find:

      As of December 2011 – in Florida, earlier this year lawmakers passed a law requiring all instructional materials used for public K-12 schools be provided in electronic or digital format by the 2015-16 school year.

      Back in 2010 – Manatee County School District recently purchased more than 300 Apple iPads to be used in science classes at six schools, part of a $750,000 federal grant to enhance education through technology.

      Read more here:

      Lake Minneola High School – as of 7/31/11 the school has invested around $700,000 buying up 1750 iPads for its students.

      Westlake Preparatory School & Academy in Davie – using Android tablets

      Audubon Park Elementary and Ocoee Middle in Orange

      Orlando Science Schools

      All sixth graders at Hernando’s Winding Waters K-8 School will get iPads for their daily studies (8/2012).

      Bishop Kenny High School announced today the school plans to go completely digital in the 2013-14 school year. The school will furnish iPads for all of its 1,200 students. The iPads will be part of each student’s tuition cost. Bishop Kenny is the second private school in the Jacksonville area to announce plans to phase out textbooks for tablets. University Christian School announced an iPad plan in January. The school’s students will be using iPads beginning in August. University Christian School in Jacksonville is using iPads instead of textbooks and notebooks this year for 8th-12 graders.

      Broward County High School

      Archbishop McCarthy High School

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