iBooks | Feature

How 'Big Three' Publishers Are Approaching iPad Textbooks

Questions and opportunities surround the still-nascent iPad textbook market. T.H.E. Journal looked at the offerings from the 'big three' publishers--Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and HMH--to discern where the industry is, and where it might be headed.

As digital and mobile technologies assume a growing role in classrooms around the country, the stalwart textbook has remained largely analog. But this past January, Apple turned heads when it expanded its iPad bookseller, iBookstore, to include textbooks in partnership with the three largest K-12 publishers, who, together, are responsible for around 90 percent of textbook sales in the market.

Concurrent with the launch, McGraw-Hill debuted five titles, including high school math and science texts, and released a sixth before the start of this school year. Pearson also released six math and science texts. In August, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) launched two social studies titles, "The Americas" and "World History."

The January launch, however, came off-cycle for textbook adoption, noted Vineet Madan, senior vice president of new ventures for McGraw-Hill education, who added that this school year represented the first wave of schools trying out digital offerings.

One early adopter, St. Patrick's High School in Chicago, began its 1-to-1 iPad pilot with its ninth grade class this August. As part of the pilot, students are using several iPad textbooks, including HMH's "World History."

"Obviously some people were just a little concerned with how it’s going to work because it’s a brand new thing," said Matt Monroe, a social studies teacher at the school who has been using the iBook with his class. "However, all the freshmen teachers that have been using it really enjoy having the technology in the classroom."

Part of the appeal, he said, was the infusion of interactive and multimedia elements. "Students really enjoy the added experience that they get. It’s not just simply reading words but they get to watch a video or hear an audio clip or see a picture or work with an interactive chart."

According to the publishers, creating a new experience for students was a top priority when porting their textbooks onto the iPad. "Really what an iBook is at the end of the day is freed from the constraint of the traditional page as we know it," said Bethlam Forsa, executive vice president for product development and publishing operations at HMH. "And it’s allowed us to make significant user enhancements around it."

In particular, Forsa pointed to HMH's incorporation of audio summaries and videos--embedded and streaming--created by the History Channel. The texts also include a number of timelines, maps, and diagrams that students interact with, like a feature that lets students plot out battle routes.

Forsa said that with the additional content, each iBook is equivalent to roughly 2,000 printed pages, compared with 1,300 pages in its print counterpart. "This is really a wonderful thing in the digital medium where you really are able to bring all this rich media feature functionality and you no longer have the weight of the book in your backpack," she said.

New Technology, New Questions
These same new features have led to concerns that iBooks are too large for standard iPads--average sizes range from about 800 MB to 2 GB each--and siphon off too much of a school's bandwidth. But Monroe said neither issue has been a problem at his school.

"Say all of a sudden there was a power outage or the internet stops working. The iBook has so many features that are built into it that it would not have an adverse effect on our lesson," he said. "There are only a few videos that are streaming that require the internet connection, but those videos are really long in length."

At St. Patrick's, ninth grade students are using iBooks for science, math, and history class, as well as assorted texts compiled by the school's religion and English departments using iBooks Author. So far, Monroe said finding space on the device has not become an issue. "I have about 124 students," he said. "Of all those students that have used the iBooks, I had one student that did not have the proper space and it’s because he had 7,000 songs on his iPad."

Some educators have also criticized the pedagogical necessity of these new features, although publishers were quick to defend them.

"We only include images and animation if we feel they're going to achieve a purpose in instruction," said Mark Staloff, Pearson School's product manager for new technology.

Specifically, Staloff said that the use of multiple images in an iBook, as opposed to only one in print, made some text descriptions unnecessary. Including them was beneficial, he said, because many students understand things visually. "There's more information for visual learners if that's a student's strongest angle."

Staloff also noted that the visuals may also offer new opportunities for self-guided learning, particularly in math where students can see problems being worked out for them. "In all of our programs there's a lot of self assessment--its very low stakes," he said. "Simply saying 'This is incorrect, this is correct' helps the students get feedback on their learning. The ideal situation needs to be having a teacher or having that community in the classroom, but this provides extra support for students on their own."

Forsa said the HMH social studies texts include sections with quizzes and assessments to help teachers "see [students'] understanding very quickly."

Moving the iBook Forward
In the end, the concerns about the digital divide, associated costs, and existing infrastructure present a roadblock for some schools. All three major publishers recognize that schools will adopt the technology at different rates, and they intend to help smooth the transition in a number of ways.

Specifically, publishers stressed that purchasing iBooks will continue to follow a similar format. "In terms of purchasing the electronic versions of the content, it follows our same types of sales and licensing and use model," Madan said of McGraw-Hill. "What usually happens is the school districts will purchase them in bulk for a few school buildings or individual school buildings and then manage provisioning of the associated devices that have access to that content."

Publishers are also offering device-agnostic solutions for BYOD classes and print-digital hybrid products--like Pearson's eText supplements, recently adapted for the iPad.

Forsa at HMH summed up her company's strategy by saying they "will have an offering no matter where a district or customers are in that digital spectrum. If you want a fully, 100 percent digital offering, we have that. If you’re looking for a hybrid print-digital, we have that."

At McGraw-Hill, Madan said that his company has been working to evolve the medium with interactivity, "pushing the boundaries" insomuch as the final product still resembles a traditional one-size-fits-all textbook. But, he said, they might not always be married to the concept.

"Where we believe it gets more interesting is if you remove that boundary and say, 'So what should or what could a better, more interactive, more engaging teaching and learning experience be on a tablet device?'" he mused. "You actually end up deriving a very different solution than an interactive textbook. But we'll continue to serve all segments of the market in where they are in whatever state of readiness customers are in adopting these things."

Madan said schools may adopt e-books as a sort of stepping stone to the introduction of larger pedagogical shifts around personalized and mobile learning. "I think it's important that people take that first step to kind of get through the doorway," he said of the initial shift from print to digital. "Once they do get through the doorway they realize that although the first step was necessary, it wasn't the important part."