Good Riddance to the Textbook


By Samuel Greengard

Apple sent ripples through the education and publishing worlds when it announced that it was looking to redefine the modern textbook. iBook Author could revolutionize the way schools and students use books. It could modernize learning and, Apple hopes, "reinvent" the space in profound ways.

There's a practical upside to e-books in schools. For one thing, students don't have to lug around backpacks filled with heavy dead trees. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my sons--who attend middle school and high school--routinely carry backpacks that exceed 25 pounds. There's also the benefit of carrying one device instead of trying to keep track of several books.

However, the more interesting aspect of all this is the ability for teachers, schools and others to micro-publish course guides and textbooks. If I were a textbook publisher I'd be very nervous about losing the market stranglehold over my incredibly overpriced books. In some cases, traditional textbooks that sell for upwards of $75 are available in e-book format for $15 or $20.

Let's not even get into a discussion about the politics of textbook publishing these days. There's no question that iBook Author and similar tools will democratize and disrupt the relationship between schools, students, parents and publishers. Texas and other large states will no longer control the content that goes into what high school students read in Idaho or Vermont.

Some school districts and a growing number of universities have already turned to iPads--and studies show that this model is more effective for learning while reducing the overall cost of buying and managing physical books. There's no question that there are serious economic and logistical challenges with converting hardbound books to e-books--and not all school districts will be able to afford tablets initially. But the writing is on the blackboard.

The corporate world long ago gave up hardbound books and learning materials in favor of content distributed through the Internet and portals. Amazon reports that over 50 percent of the books it sells to consumers are e-books. The educational system is the final frontier. One can only hope that this radically different model will light a fire under an educational system that increasingly fails students, businesses and society in general.