Apple’s entry into e-textbook field a good thing, sort of

(This post has been updated on 1.26.12 with corrected material.)

Apple made a big announcement this week — and really, what other kind of announcement does Apple make?

The Cupertino computer, book, magazine, phone, gaming, music, movie and TV company is getting into the digital textbook game. Digital textbooks are about to explode. No longer are they simply the same old textbooks on a computer. Now various companies and non-profits are building “textboooks” with embedded video elements and word translation and definitions. The best among them allow teachers to customize books and they provide exercises that give students feedback and teachers data on how a child is progressing.

Neeru Khosla's C-K12 initiaive has some distinct advantages over Apple's e-book plan

Apple’s entry legitmizes the whole space, which is a good thing. Still, Apple might not be the best answer for schools, teachers and students. If Apple runs textbooks by its usual modus operandi, it will keep tight control over the books, their content and the types of devices on which the books can be accessed.

I admit I have not studied Apple’s plan in detail. But apparently the publishing tools etc. that the company released this week depend on the $500 (or so) iPad. The iPad has tremendous potential as a teaching and learning tool and they might not be too much of a financial stretch for school districts that are saving money on textbooks by moving to the Apple library, but there are better, more open, alternatives out there.

I’ve written about one. (The column should appear on the Mercury News website this evening, barring breaking news etc.) Neeru Khosla, whose husband is Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has launched the CK-12 Foundation, an organization that is providing free and open source textbook (and other educational material) that can be downloaded to computers, smartphones, iPad, Kindles, you name it).

And to repeat: The books are free.

The initiative has the potential to save school districts billions. Really. Now CK-12 still has a ways to go to provide comprehensive textbooks for K-12 students. At this point the non-profit has built mostly science and math books for middle  and high school. But CK-12 has a lot of momentum and a lot of money. (The Khoslas are basically bankrolling the operation.)

There are other initiatives making digital texts available, too. Former Sun co-founder Scott McNealy several years ago launched Curriki, a free, open source  textbook project . (What’s with these Sun guys and open source textbooks? Vinod Khosla is also a co-founder of Sun.) I wrote about Curriki last  year. The link on the Mercury News website is dead now, but I’ll paste a copy of it at the end of this post.

So, the Apple announcement is good news for the digital textbook space. Just as the company pushed a computer revolution in classrooms with its Macs, it will be a major force in encouraging adoption of e-textbooks. Still, having to stick with the iPad would smother real innovation, such as the kind that Louise Waters of Leadership Academy, charter schools in the east bay and San Jose, is working on. The schools have adopted CK-12’s flexbooks, which also can be printed out as PDFs.

(Note on 1.26.12: I spoke with Louise Waters this morning. She explained that it was never her idea to use smartphones to access CK-12 material. The smartphones were to be used with a different Leadership initiative for which the schools ended up buying used smartphones on eBay when donations were less than robust.)

Her idea for closing the hardware gap between rich and poor? She’s advocating the use of smartphones discarded by those who are upgrading to new smartphones. Brilliant. Even having to buy a new smartphone is a reasonable alternative.

My big idea for making the Apple project among the best? Rather than charging something like $15 for each textbook (a big savings over dead-tree books), why not simply give the books away?

Apple is sitting on a ton of cash (think tens and tens of billions) and I can think of no better tribute to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who mentioned digital textbooks as an important part of the future.

Here’s last year’s Curriki column:

Publication:  San Jose Mercury News Headline:  AFTER SUN, MCNEALY THINKING BIG AGAIN Subhead:  CURRIKI OFFERS A BOLD WAY TO LOOK AT K-12 EDUCATION Web Headline:  Cassidy: Former Sun chief Scott McNealy¿s better idea for school text books Reporter:  By Mike Cassidy, Day:  Sunday Print Run Date:  8/29/2010 Section:  Business Edition:  Valley Final Page Number:  1 Section Letter:  E Memo:  Corrections: Dateline:    Slug    Text:  Scott McNealy is not the bashful sort.

He’s a Silicon Valley original who cofounded Sun Microsystems and ran the place for two decades. He’s cocky and an adherent to the mantra “go big or go home.” He sees no reason to curse the darkness when you can light a candle or a stick of dynamite.

Now that Sun is no more (sold to Larry Ellison, another valley shrinking violet), McNealy has turned his attention to a bold plan to turn elementary and high school education inside out.

“If we had $100 million, I could create a website — and I’ve done bigger and crazier things than this — that is a combination Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter for anybody involved in K-12 — every parent, teacher or student in K-12 education.”

McNealy is sitting in a booth over breakfast and it feels like the place is vibrating. Yes, he’s very excited about Curriki, his vision for a free and open source digital compendium of just about everything teachers use to teach — textbooks, worksheets, tests, video presentations, podcasts, you name it. The project, run by McNealy and former Sun executive Kim Jones, started inside Sun six years ago and spun out as a nonprofit in 2006.

McNealy is the lead evangelist and funder for the initiative that’s also received donations from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, Bechtel CEO Riley Bechtel, former eBay CEO and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and others — about $10 million in all. Eliminating bulky textbooks, McNealy says, and the need to update and reprint them could save schools billions of dollars a year, particularly when you add in all the other printed educational material that could be digitized.

Estimates of what the nation spends on textbooks vary wildly, but for an idea of the scale of the project, consider that California spends about $350 million a year on textbooks and educational material.

Curriki has a start and a long way to go. Jones says college professors, teachers and authors have uploaded 38,000 educational pieces to the site, It has about 135,000 registered users. No question the site needs to become easier to navigate, Jones and McNealy acknowledge. And despite the volume of contributions, there are considerable gaps for those looking for a complete K-12 experience.

There are other obstacles for Curriki, too. McNealy is taking on an educational bureaucracy that is notoriously hidebound. Education reform does not move on Internet time. Textbooks must be approved by state boards and accepted by school districts and school administrators. Publishers have political clout and a huge financial stake in the way educational content is delivered. Critics have pointed out that even a free and open source system has costs — technical support, training, the need to make sure schools and kids have computers or other devices to access the wealth of Web-bound information.

But McNealy is unbowed.

“If I never have another job, ” he says (and at the moment he doesn’t have another job), “this is a wall that I am going to keep bashing my head into.”

Why? Don’t get him started. It drives McNealy nuts, for instance, that third-grade math books are regularly reprinted and reordered by schools year after year.

“The ones you and I learned on would work just as well for my third-grader as the new ones, ” he tells me. “You learned 10 plus 10 was 20. It hasn’t changed since then and it’s not going to change 20 years from now.”

Saving money is just the beginning, McNealy says. Open source digital textbooks would mean that teachers could add, subtract and change curriculum. Teachers could comment on each others’ lesson plans. Students would receive instant feedback — yes or no, right or wrong — when completing assignments delivered via computer program. And instant feedback lights kids up, says McNealy, the father of four scholars, ages 8 to 14.

McNealy is a true believer in an open source answer to what ails education and I admire his zeal. Our public schools are a wreck and sinking fast. I can’t say that Curriki is the answer. And even McNealy, a fierce competitor in golf, hockey and business, says this isn’t some contest that Curriki must win. But he figures Curriki might at least inspire other big ideas.

“I just want the problem solved.”

We all want that. And the truth is, the more big, bold ideas out there, the more dynamite fuses we light, the better our chances of finding something that might just save our schools and our future.

Contact Mike Cassidy at or 408-920-5536. Follow him at

Infobox:  Chart:  Illustration:  Photos (2) Caption:  Photo:Patrick Tehan/Mercury News
Scott McNealy, the father of four, is shown with sons Scout, 8, left, and Maverick, 14, at home.

Photo:Patrick Tehan/Mercury News
Scott McNealy’s next big thing is Curriki, a project to create an open-source K-12 curriculum. Column:  Silicon Valley Dispatches Word Count:  777 Keywords:    Series Name: 



Filed under Education Technology, Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley Life

3 responses to “Apple’s entry into e-textbook field a good thing, sort of

  1. If an author is willing to give his/her textbook away for free, Apple makes the distribution process frictionless and free. The only time Apple charges $14.99 and takes its cut of the book sale is when the publisher wants to charge for the book. Apple is providing a platform on which the free textbook industry can grow. And it’s providing a platform on which profit driven publishers can also deliver their content. It seems that there’s room within that framework for both models to flourish simultaneously.

  2. mikecassidy

    Mark, that’s a fair point. I wrote this post before I knew as much about Apple’s plan as I know now. I still have concerns about the need for an iPad to make the system work. I’ve got a possible solution, though. I wrote about that in the Mercury News.

  3. This is a topic that is near to my heart…
    Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?

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