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Summary:

In talking with an executive from Apple iBooks partner McGraw-Hill, it’s clear the company has high hopes but also concerns about maintaining consistently high-quality textbooks that are published with iBooks Author. Here are some of the most interesting points from our conversation.

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iBookshelfEducational publishing giant McGraw-Hill had a major presence in Apple’s new digital textbooks initiative announced Thursday. The company is one of the first to put high school textbooks in the iBooks 2 app and worked with Apple on the iBooks Author app.

I talked with McGraw-Hill Education SVP of Strategic Services Vineet Madan on Friday about the company’s own vision for the future of iBooks and interactive course material in general, as well as how it makes sense for the company to have seemingly competing investments in iBooks competitors like Inkling and CourseSmart. Madan also made it clear the company has concerns about maintaining consistently high-quality textbooks that are published with iBooks Author. Here are some of the most interesting points from our conversation.

McGraw-Hill saw the iPad early on but chose not to partner with Apple on iPad textbooks right away

It turns out the publisher wasn’t too keen on the original version of iBooks, according to Madan.

“We’ve been talking with them since iBooks first came out. We said iBooks was insufficient in its form — prior to yesterday — for delivering education content…. It wasn’t a suitable delivery medium for that content. We talked to Apple about what we thought was necessary and ended up working with them to bring that to fruition.”

Instead, back in 2010, McGraw-Hill took a minority stake in Inkling, which has been making interactive textbooks for the iPad for two years, primarily for the higher education and non-education market. They’re also investors in higher-ed focused CourseSmart, whose chilly response to Apple’s entry in the market I wrote about yesterday.

iBooks 2 is only a “first half-step” to the future of e-textbooks

Using interactive material to get students engaged is great. But McGraw-Hill sees a future where students not only learn using digital books but can also can be tested and have the material tailored for particular needs.

“The next step is can you start tracking information about how students are learning and what they’re learning. You need rigorous tested assessments, something the current version of iBooks doesn’t yet support. But you need strong assessment in there and you need to link the data with how students are navigating content to provide tailored instructional paths.”

They don’t lose money charging $15 for a digital textbook instead of $75 for a physical book 

Madan explained the math to me: The high school textbooks they publish sell for between $65 and $85, or an average of $75 each. Each book is used for five years on average, which is $15 per use, per year, or the same as what Apple is setting the price for textbooks in the iBookstore.

But wait; it actually gets better for the big-time publishers: “We are then out of the business of printing books, shipping books, being responsible for warehousing when this scales,” said Madan. That can lead to new investment in more interactive and enriched content.

Even McGraw-Hill execs wonder where school districts will get the money for iPads

In the higher education market in the U.S., mostly everyone has the right hardware and has enough bandwidth. But the story is different in primary and secondary education.

“But in K-12, the big open question that went unanswered yesterday is school districts and their funding environment. They can pay $15 a book, but that’s if they choose to spend $500 to $800 to buy iPads first.”

Madan said he personally was “surprised they didn’t announce some sort of academic pricing or education pricing for iPads to jumpstart this.”

McGraw-Hill is concerned about the quality of content published through iBooks Author

“Opening up the authoring tool to everyone raises questions about the validity and rigor and quality of the instructional tools available [in iBookstore]. … Someone still has to curate and assemble and test. Given the very open nature of the authoring tool, it could end up creating something where there’s a lot of noise. That could run a little counter to the objectives we all have.

But he sounded optimistic about finding a solution. Said Madan, “Collectively, we need to solve that problem. But that’s to come.”

  1. GrumpyMonkeyPants Friday, January 20, 2012

    “The next step is can you start tracking information about how students are learning and what they’re learning. You need rigorous tested assessments, something the current version of iBooks doesn’t yet support. But you need strong assessment in there and you need to link the data with how students are navigating content to provide tailored instructional paths.”

    TRACKING INFORMATION!!!? What the hell is she talking about!? Their existing model before yesterday track exactly NOTHING! This textbook over here has absolutely no way of tracking anything. So now you want to start tracking everything because it is possible? To have a bunch of silly graphs and charts to show data to some guy in a suit who will have no idea how to interpret.

    1. I interpreted that as keeping track of how students are performing on their homework and assessments for instructor use, a la Kahn Academy. But my tinfoil hat is in the shop so…

  2. “Given the very open nature of the authoring tool, it could end up creating something where there’s a lot of noise”
    Interpretation: We could have a lot of competition.

    “That could run a little counter to the objectives we all have.”
    Key Word: We (McGraw-Hill)

    Love Grumpy’s comment – Right on :-)

    1. Yup. The authoring tool is definitely the scariest for those publishers, because groups of teachers or academics now have the ability to create and distribute their own textbooks. If Apple (much like they do with the app store) take thorough reviews of each prospective eTextbook before publishing to the store, you’ve solved the supposed “issue” Madan references here. This is a good development all around.

      1. A real textbook editor and author Andrew Friday, January 20, 2012

        I have no doubt that the authoring tool scares publishers, but not perhaps for the reasons you think. (However, this is not to say that you have a point.) Having worked as a developmental editor, writer, and ghost writer on high school science textbooks for nearly 30 years, here’s what most people don’t know, based on the hundreds of teacher-authors I’ve worked with. First, at least one-half of them are barely literate, and half of those are functionally illiterate. By this I mean that they are barely capable or incapable of expressing themselves coherently in anything that extends beyond a single sentence. I truly kid you not. Of the remaining half, a wee fraction of teacher-authors are powerful writers and communicators. The remainder are decent-enough writers who nevertheless needs a fair amount of help expressing themselves and organizing their thinking clearly. So what scares me (and, perhaps a bit less so, publishers) is the quality of the material that groups of teachers will put together for students. Beyond the flash and sizzle and all the jazz of the technology, we’re still ultimately left with words and images on a (virtual) page. Between the words/images and the reader, there is a vast chasm that is mediated in large part by the skills of editors and ghost writers. At a personal level, I have great concern for the quality of education that’ll take place in the classroom if teachers wind up producing most of the material in their iClassrooms. (And yes, of course I have concern for my own job, but that’s not where I’m coming from with this.)

      2. Joaquín Vila-Belda Andrew Wednesday, January 25, 2012

        I absolutely agree, no one can do good textbooks without the help of specialized professional

  3. Yes, the market is going to look fondly on a publisher losing say 75% of its revenue… Market corrections have been going for a while, and will apparently continue.

  4. Can this tracking you speak of cause privacy problems?

  5. Why not partner with charter schools who took a leap and implemented ipad2 tech in grades k-8? We are willing and able to explain how we use app, platforms, and digital content to reach all of our students. We would love to give you feedback about your textbooks!

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