Apple, Textbooks and the Education-Industrial Complex

Apple has certainly come a long way as the corporate insurgent (capturing the imagination of my kids and many of their peers) challenging and now outperforming “the man” Microsoft of the computer industry. Of course, Apple has sought brand loyalty from the younger generation for years by marketing their computers to schools, to put them in front of all those young consumers cloistered in those educational venues. The late Steve Job’s company has also advanced their brand by playing the insurgent in the music business, challenging the traditional marketing practices of a moribund music industry with their iPod, iTunes, and now music industry topping iStore.

But now I read that Apple is moving big-time into the textbook business, and I would hope that they would similarly challenge that entrenched corporate establishment as well. Certainly one can argue that big publishing companies like McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, have encouraged what I would consider a damaging centralization, standardization and increasingly OSFA (one size fits all) approach to public education in order to expand and protect their markets for selling textbooks.

But in the intro to Jason Tomassini’s piece “Apple Unveils E-Textbook Strategy for K-12” for Education Week, he calls out that Apple is now allying with rather than challenging the corporate educational “man”…

Apple Inc. announced aggressive new efforts last week to move into the K-12 electronic-textbook market, though educational publishers said the biggest news from the move is how the normally disruptive company is likely to help the publishing industry rather than challenge it. Through a partnership with three major K-12 textbook publishers—McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Apple is offering interactive textbooks through its iBooks store at $14.99 or less.

These new corporate partners are the who’s who of the “educational-industrial complex”. Of course Apple has been a part of the education market for decades…

In its entirety, the announcement signals Apple’s intent to further deepen its market share in K-12 education. Sales of the iPad are outpacing Mac computers in the education sector, and Apple officials said there were 1.5 million iPads in use in education, more than 1,000 one-to-one iPad computing initiatives in K-12, and 20,000 education apps in the iTunes store.

Certainly public school systems have the potential to save money buying lots of virtual rather than hard-copy textbooks. But the bigger underlying narrative involves these big corporate dinosaurs looking to maintain their control over public education and their many billion dollar market for textbooks and testing materials.

Big business moved to a position at the helm of the U.S. public education system back in the first decades of the 20th century, as chronicled in Raymond Callahan’s book “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”. Corporate “reformers” attacked the U.S. public school system for its alleged “inefficiencies”, and the vulnerable educational establishment (with its mostly low status female teachers) essentially surrendered control of that system to new business-trained bosses, the corporate interests that supported those bosses, and the agendas of those corporate interests, including according to Callahan…

That educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. As the business-industrial values and procedures spread into the thinking and acting of countless educational decisions were made on economic or on non-educational grounds. (Calahan, pg 246)

So now in the 21st century Information Age we see the rise of the Internet as a brand new and potentially anarchic challenge to the entrenched interests, including corporate interests, of our previous Industrial Age. To try and hold on to power and market share in this new age, the old industrial age corporations need to adapt to these challenges.

For the big textbook publishers, that challenging new reality is that much of the knowledge of the world is now available to anyone and everyone for free on the Net. Perhaps a profound potential challenge to their current monopoly is the whole “Open Educational Content” movement, which is very fledgling at this point. Using these new Internet wiki-type tools, teachers have the capability to develop their own curricula and even “publish” their own hard-copy books, outside the purview of the big education publishers. Not a big challenge yet, because most states and school districts are locked into their relationships with the big publishers (that’s where the increasing standardization of curriculum plays into the big corporate textbook marketing). But down the road, maybe sooner than later if public schools continue to be strapped for funding, will school systems continue to invest billions in publishers’ products given they no longer have the monopoly as gatekeepers to the world’s established wisdom?

So it is certainly wise for these big corporate educational-industrial complex players to enlist powerful Information Age players to help protect their markets. Just as it continues to be in their interest to push for ever increasing educational centralization and standardization so they sell more “units” while having a smaller group of customers that they need to keep happy.

From Tomassini’s piece…

The publishers will give Apple a cut of the revenue; 30 percent in the case of individual consumers, and an undetermined amount when selling on a state or district level. It’s a mutually beneficial model akin to iTunes, publishers said, not a run around the publishing industry, as had been speculated and hinted at by Apple founder Steve Jobs before his death last year.

But is it really in Apple’s interest to surrender their role here as Information Age iconoclasts and perhaps sell their own corporate soul for the big bucks associated with the Industrial Age dinosaurs of the big ed biz? Is that really keeping faith with their youthful customer base and the new ideas branding that they try to represent?

Mr. Jobs had always taken an interest in education, and in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the technology innovator, he is quoted as speaking of a “corrupt” state textbook-approval process, the massive textbook industry, and his hope to transform it… For textbook publishers, though, business won’t be as disrupted as Mr. Jobs may have hoped… Ms. Shore of Pearson Education said creating content for Apple would be no different from creating any other kind of textbook content. Pearson creates the content first, then adapts it to multiple platforms, whether it’s Apple, Android, Amazon, or print.

Will Apple become (like Microsoft founder Bill Gates) just another entrenched corporate interest protecting business as usual in education by joining the rest of the education-industrial complex in promoting testing-obsessed standardization and the teacher union busting corporatism and labeling of “failed” schools that seems to go with it?

Some critics believe the cost of the devices could prevent the innovative textbooks from being used by the students who need them most. By the end of the year, for example, McGraw-Hill will produce five Apple-only textbooks. If the textbooks can be used on Apple devices only, it could require cash-strapped districts to decide on Apple or a lesser education.

Certainly there is the potential for Apple’s Internet enabling technology to challenge rather than support the traditional book sellers…

Apple also unveiled a brand-new application called iBooks Author, which allows users to create and publish their own e-books. The tool can be used only on Macintosh computers, but books can immediately be published into the iBooks store… Lastly, Apple announced it is upgrading iTunes U, its directory for educational content for higher education, to allow teachers to create entire online courses.

This sounds more in line with what I mentioned above about the “Open Educational Content” movement, and would involve Apple more in their traditional insurgent role.

So the question is, will Apple continue to be a force for real change, perhaps giving poorer school districts (generally judged as “failing” in the No Child Left Behind standardization paradigm) the opportunity to develop their own curriculum online and redirect that big textbook budget line item to other needed improvements like attracting better teachers and improving their school infrastructures to keep pace with more well-to-do districts?

Its all TBD at this point!

2 replies on “Apple, Textbooks and the Education-Industrial Complex”

  1. This article is most welcome. It calls attention to strategic decisions which Apple is making as we speak, decisions which can impact public education (for good or ill) for generations to come.

  2. Reuben… As we continue to develop human society we need all the allies we can get in transforming old perhaps moribund institutions. Apple has been mostly an ally in that effort and I hope they can continue to be so rather than just be about making the most money in the short run. I am concerned that when Jobs was still alive he had indicated some discomfort with the conventional textbook industry. Now that he has passed away, I hope the new Apple management is not going against that thinking.

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