Schools Want iPads This Fall, But Are iTextbooks Worth It? [Feature]


Is Apple's e-textbook ecosystem ready for the 2012 - 2013 school year?
Is Apple's e-textbook ecosystem ready for the 2012 - 2013 school year?

Many schools in the U.S. haven’t even had their spring break yet, but school administrators are already planning for the next school year. For public schools that means determining how best to allocate scarce financial resources and trying to determine how far they can push their budgets before the residents and homeowners in their district will vote them down. School IT departments meanwhile are beginning to consider what major projects and upgrades they’ll be doing over the summer recess.

Although this decision-making process tends to run like clockwork for most schools and districts, this year there’s a new factor to consider: Apple’s iPad-based iBooks 2 e-textbook initiative (as well as the iPad itself).

Apple announced its textbook strategy more than two months ago. Since then both the company and schools have been pretty silent on the matter. If anything from that announcement gets discussed in most circle, it’s iBooks Author, the free Mac application for creating interactive books and listing them for sale in Apple’s iBooks store.

Apple may not have said much about its e-textbook plans since January, but it did launch the new Apple Configurator tool for deploying and managing iPads (and other iOS devices) earlier this month. Having worked with many school IT departments over the past decade, my first impression of Configurator was that it was practically tailor made for K-12 education in general and for cash-strapped schools in particular.

Configurator itself is free – a fact that makes it an attractive option compared to many mobile device management suites that, while excellent, are aimed more at business needs and can easily incur licensing costs beyond what many schools can easily afford. Configurator is capable of deploying, backing up, and managing up to 30 devices at a time, which dovetails nicely with the  learning lab kits from Apple as well as other iPad cart and charging systems on the market by companies like Datamation and Bretford, whose primary customers are schools. Configurator also is designed to facilitate library-style sharing of devices in which users receive their documents, files, and settings regardless of which device they use – very similar to how schools work with laptops in the classroom when 1-to-1 deployments are beyond a district’s means.

Many schools have already done iPad deployments, either in a shared in-classroom system or a 1-to-1 style program where each student gets his or her own iPad for the duration for the entire school year or their entire time at that school. Shared programs are most common at the elementary school level while 1-to-1 programs are seen most at the high school level. Middle schools tend to vary depending on the resources and prevailing opinions of the school or district.

While there are noted advantages to the iPad in education, managing the initial deployment can be challenging for schools and IT departments on technical and logistical levels. 1-to-1 setups offer the most challenges because each iPad needs to be delivered to a student and someone at the school (IT team members, teachers, administrative staff, or interns) must ensure that the device is properly enrolled with a management system. Regulations mandating filtering software for student computers and devices is also a challenge, particularly when devices leave the school’s network and connect from home or public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Mobile device management vendor MobileIron offers a recorded webinar with officials from the Lexington One school district in South Carolina that describe the challenges and experiences of the district’s mass roll out of 7,000 devices in a 1-to-1 setup (free registration required).

Apple’s e-textbook initiative goes beyond a simple roll out. It includes buying textbooks for each student and deploying them. The roll out isn’t a particularly trying task. It’s essentially just another small component of the mass deployment process. But vetting, choosing, and purchasing the textbooks is a different story.

Apple’s textbook section of the iBooks store is still very small. As of this writing it has just over 30 titles and doesn’t completely cover the needs of a single grade level. That means schools face a choice of going into next year with a hodgepodge selection of both electronic and printed texts if they adopt both iPads and iBooks e-textbooks.

Given the expense involved and limited selection, schools may be better off going with just printed texts for the coming school year with the hope that Apple’s selection will grow significantly over the course of the next year. In that case, schools could do a full or partial iPad deployment to students this coming year without e-textbooks. That would reduce the initial cost compared to going whole hog into Apple’s new ecosystem and it would allow a year for teachers and IT to work out any kinks while printed texts are still the primary references.

Obviously, Apple is not the only game in town for electronic textbooks in the classroom. Amazon offers its own selection of electronic textbooks through its Kindle store and has a larger selection at this point and it allows users to rent many of them, though renting textbooks may appeal more to college students than to school districts.

Amazon’s Kindle devices can also be bought at much less expensive price points but aren’t as well suited to education as the iPad. The iPad’s versatility and selection of apps are two advantages for K-12 students. The bigger advantage is the iPad’s manageability, which is a must-have in the K-12 market.

The Kindle iPad app does make Kindle textbooks an option beyond Apple’s e-textbooks, which brings up the issue of standardization. Any school or district is going to want to create a single source ecosystem to streamline purchases, deployments, classroom use, and troubleshooting. That means one e-textbook platform be it Apple’s, Amazon’s, or printed textbooks.

It also means picking a single device platform that schools can buy with a level of trust about future software updates, new models, and easy device replacement if needed. The platform most also be secure and manageable. This gives Apple a big leg up over the Kindle as well as Android tablets because it produces everything in the chain – hardware, OS, app purchase and distribution, and updates. Apple is also a proven name in the education space that schools are most schools feel they can trust.

What decisions will schools make for the next budget cycle and summer IT projects? Most likely, many will choose iPads if they choose a tablet or e-reader strategy. Most probably won’t jump into Apple’s e-textbook system for the 2012 – 2013 schoolyear, however. The system is almost certainly too new and too unproven for more the test or pilot program. As to how will win in an e-textbook battle between Apple and Amazon? Stay tuned.