Apple's Slow But Radical Overhaul Of Education

Nobody doubts that the classroom of the future will look very different than it does today. It will, at the very least, involve fewer dead trees and be much more tapped into that globe-spanning network of knowledge we call the Internet. Learning will also be even more geographically distributed than it is today. And it's increasingly looking like tablet computers will be at the heart of the whole experience. Like it or not, Apple is leading the charge. 

What Apple Showed

When Apple made its first official foray into digital textbooks earlier this year, I was skeptical. It seemed clear that iBooks 2, iBooks Author and the new "textbooks" section of the iBookstore would not revolutionize the education market anytime soon, even if the longterm potential was obvious. Tuesday, Apple shared some early results from those efforts and revealed the next phase of its overhaul of education. It's definitely onto something. 

Most of the 100 million iPads sold worldwide were purchased by consumers and businesses, but a growing number of those buyers are school districts. In the last nine months, 2,500 classrooms have started using iBooks textbooks, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced. Their content now covers 80% of the core high school curriculum in the United States. It's not a bad start, but Apple has a long way to go before iBooks makes an iTunes-like impact. 

The next wave of that impact won't come from iBooks 3 or the new version of iBooks Author, which are both nice, but relatively minor updates. If anything from Tuesday's event will help push digital textbook adoption forward, it's the hardware. Specifically, the iPad Mini. By offering a $329 tablet, Apple suddenly made iPad adoption notably more affordable for cash-strapped school districts. Apple also released the fourth generation 10-inch iPad, which should help drive down the price of the company's older devices as well. 

Indeed, the cost of these iPad-based programs is one of their biggest logistical handicaps, especially in urban school districts. I live in Philadelphia, where the public schools are forever plagued by budget cuts. The teachers I know have to ask for donations from the community (or pay from their own pocket) just to ensure's there are enough pencils and reams of paper. Their students aren't going to see $500 tablet computers anytime soon. A $329 iPad is bit easier to swallow for educators set on bringing iOS, rather than cheaper Android or Windows tablets into the classroom. Give it a few years, and these things will be dirt cheap. 

Apple's Not the Only Player, But It's Still Apple

Of course, Apple has plenty of competition, both on the hardware front and when it comes to educational content. Because of the iPad's premium price tag, some schools are experimenting with Kindle Fires and other Android-based tablets. The 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, for example, is considerably cheaper than the iPad mini. One fifth grade classroom that tried deploying the Galaxy Tab found it to be effective overall, but software glitches continually interrupted the experience for students. That's something that the Apple fan boys will be quick to point out: The iPad, as they say, just works.

There's some truth to that. Compared to Android, iOS is more polished and intuitive, but what Android tablets may lack in user experience, they typically make up in more affordable hardware. 

The iBookstore isn't the first place to offer digital textbooks, either. Startups like InklingChegg and Kno were reimagining the textbook for a digital world long before Apple started getting serious about its role in education's future. Meanwhile, Amazon has its own e-textbook storefront and rental program and Barnes and Noble offers its own digital learning tool called Nook Study

While the educatiuonal space is filling up, it's also relatively young. So far, Apple has made one of  the most direct pushes into it. We don't see Amazon pushing the Kindle Fire as the next big thing in classrooms, for instance. Not yet, anyway.

As is often the case, Apple has a tremendous advantage by virtue of the fact that it's Apple. The iPad's dominant position in the marketplace gives it the best shot of carving out a meaningful segment of the education market, where its sights are now very deliberately set.