Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Apple for the Teacher

To the average Apple aficionado, today’s spectacle on Apple’s entry into the education space would have seemed just par for the course.  Hype is about everything Apple does in these coordinated announcements and today was no different.  To the average textbook publisher today’s hype would have seemed of another world; that another entity – Apple yet? - would view the staid, traditional and, let’s face it, relatively small textbook publishing business as an opportunity to do big things must seem odd. I also thought, there was some irony today because a company I recognize as possibly one of the first brands ever to enter my consciousness - KODAK - declared bankruptcy.  KODAK sold film and processing and their cameras (hardware) were secondary to the revenue they got from film.  In context of today’s announcement Apple’s model is the opposite and it is unlikely textbook companies and other content providers will see themselves as the ‘KODAK’ in this relationship.  How healthy that approach may be for publishers only time will tell.

According to the National Association of College Stores the average price of college textbooks approaches $70.  Many people make value judgments about college textbook pricing but how does this very real data point jive with the desire of Apple to sell much cheaper college textbooks?  According to the presentation today, Apple plans to hold pricing of k-12 texts at less than $15.  Why would traditional publishers participate in a model that undercuts their business model to such an extent?  While I admit to assuming their pricing strategy will be consistent from K-12 to college, my conclusion is based on a primary premise of their presentation which was that textbooks are expensive.  In education today, what is clear is that there’s significant interest in ‘reinventing’ education from the content perspective and who can argue with the attention that a company like Apple can bring to a slow moving business like textbook publishing?  How sustainable their attention will be is another matter entirely.  Let’s not forget that the hype that preceded the Google bookstore and the Apple iBook store did not result in any appreciable changes in the business.  Apple’s motivations are also suspect: They are motivated by selling more hardware (unlike KODAK) and are only interested in content to the extent that it is cheap and plentiful and helps to drive hardware sales.  A content model with imposed low pricing, just like iTunes, will help sell more units.  I don’t believe Apple’s 30% cut of $14.95 will ever be significant relative to their sales of iPads at $500 a pop (give or take).

While the twitter feed this morning was overwhelming at times it was interesting that some very critical questions were quick to arise regarding Apple’s new self-publishing platform.  Fundamentally, the platform does (will) attempt to address a desire by educators for more control in the content they assign for their students.  That’s a good thing.  This desire/need of faculty is very much in nascent form; however, this may have more to do with expectations - what they see as their options given the concentration of content around less than five large publishers – than true desire to create their own material.  Motivated faculty will want to build their own content for their classes and if they can do this cost effectively and easily so much the better.  Whether they will do this on the Apple platform remains to be seen.

Offering an ‘open’ platform for faculty and others to build their content poses many potential problems.  (Since this is an Apple platform technically it isn’t ‘open’).  The functionality of the platform could be very impressive but, what’s the guessing the ‘store’ becomes full of crackpot theories, spurious pedagogy and denier/revisionist historians unless Apple ‘censors’ (a more polite favorite word could be ‘curate’) the content.  And, if they censor, what will the basis of the censorship?  I am a believer in self-publishing, and it often throws up gems on the trade side, and there is no reason why it won’t on the education side; however, the cost may be a lot of dross (or worse).  Frustration will simply drive people way.

One of the other items quickly identified as a potential problem was the management of copyright; specifically, what’s to stop someone uploading content that they don’t have rights to?  The user will be contravening copyright in using material if they haven’t cleared it appropriately and plan to pay the copyright owner for use.  Most publishers price their content at a level that inclusion in a product that can’t be priced above $15.00 makes the (legal) inclusion uneconomical.  So, that begs the question: Who will clear content properly if they categorically won’t make it up in volume?  If there is a check on copyright what will the process be that enables the use of this content which at the same time doesn’t cause the entire self-publishing process to unravel?

There are more questions over this Apple initiative in addition to those I raise above; however, I believe the only objective Apple wants to achieve is to sell more hardware.  The Education initiative is a smokescreen and we shouldn’t forget that Apple sold a school management platform named PowerSchool that they developed to Pearson in 2006.  At the time, they didn’t find the education market attractive enough even though PowerSchool was considered an impressive tool.  Interestingly, some commentators on the twitter felt the Apple education announcement represented an attack on Blackboard and other LMS platforms.  I’m not sure I see that either.

I believe the involvement of Apple in education will be a good thing for all the players in education and will spur new investment and new initiatives.  This is a dynamic space at the mmoment with technology companies, content companies and wholesalers and distributors all vying for advantage.

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