Apple just threw down the gauntlet to the K-12 publishing industry.

In announcing iBooks 2, Apple is making a compelling case that if ever there was a time for school districts to switch from paper-based textbooks to a digital approach – it is now.

Even in the absence of iBooks 2, the case was already compelling, with numerous districts and states delaying textbook purchases to explore the use of iPads in classrooms, but with these latest changes, Apple now embraces interactive textbooks, and more importantly provides the tools for anybody to create them – the very capability where many of the publishers had ‘fled’ as the last refuge of safety.

Ironically, and as often is the case with disruptive technologies, the next year or two may see a continued increase in the consumption of interactive textbooks produced by these publishers, as iPad penetration increases quickly, and as the mass-market embraces interactive texbooks. However, to see this trend as a beacon of hope for the ailing industry would be short-sighted.

Consider the warning story of Kodak, who saw sales of film continue to rise, even as digital photo technology started to reach the mainstream or the story of Blockbuster who saw physical rentals continue to rise, even as Netflix created a market from under them. There are always two separate trends at work – the trend of the overall growing market and the trend of disruption, the silent killer of companies in the long-term.

So what is the future?

Educational Publishers, at their core, must view themselves as educational service providers, and explore and embrace new business models to bring their educational services to their customers. They must accept the demise of the textbook and look at the trends and scenarios that are likely to play out in the educational ecosystem to determine how they need to position themselves to succeed.

All too often, the various players in this industry have developed their growth strategies by asking themselves, “how can we use our resources and capabilities to enter new markets?”.

This approach, which I’ll call ‘Extrapolating the Future’, constrains the company to its existing business model, and fails to recognize that the current assets and capabilities may simply not be valuable in certain future scenarios.

A better approach, is a “Future Back” view, in which the company considers a variety of future scenarios, and considers the evolution of their customers needs, and the types of firms that will be successful in providing them. This approach can help lead to the recognition that new capabilities need to be developed and new resources acquired, before it becomes too late.

Applying this framework to the educational industry suggests (to me), that interactive textbooks are merely a short-term stepping stone for Apple, as the future continues to a fully interactive application model – one where the publishers will never be able to compete through a simple extension of their current capabilities. It’s not too much of a stretch to add animators and developers alongside to your editorial staff, but to build applications, and abandon the entire ‘publisher’ business model entirely is a paradigm shift.

The publishers should not try to out-compete Apple and it’s ecosystem of partners/developers. The battle for instructional resources has already been fought, and it has most probably been lost (by the publishers). To survive, publishers must grow beyond the view that they provide instructional services, and understand the needs of their consumers. Teachers will continue to struggle to provide a good education to students, even in a world filled with iPads and iBooks. Teachers will continue to deal with drop-outs in world where Khan academy thrives. School administrators will still struggle to find qualified teachers in a world where game mechanics and social networking pervade the educational experience. Politicians will still want to demonstrate their state’s record of improvement against standards.

Most importantly, students want to find meaning and relevance in their education, and ensure that they will leave their K12 years behind them, prepared to thrive in a workplace that will look unlike anything we imagine today.

Now there’s a problem that needs solving.

3 comments on “What now, textbook publishers?

  • This seems to me to be the kind of thing that we will look back on in a few years and think of as perfectly obvious and inevitable — of course textbooks and other learning materials should be electronic and interactive and current and searchable — but someone had to kickstart the disruption and show a way forward. Huge credit to Apple for that.

    Many kids are already comfortable with the iPad and other consumer technologies, so this is an exciting step forward that I expect will find traction very quickly.

  • Khan Academy thrives with dropouts? Publishers should embrace Apple’s announcement? 1000 school districts using ipad and 100,000 not using them? Publishers out complete Apple?

    Very confusing blog given Apple’s announcement WITH PUBLISHERS yesterday. It seems with a closed system created with 3 publishers that control 90 percent of the textbook market, that there waa little disruption and digital use by students is still under 5%.

    Yes publishers need to go far beyond and understand that “open” is the wave of the future that will actually allow a market to florish for ibook2 authoring tool. Licensing that allows our faculty to create in an “unwalled publishing platform” is what is needed to move a market toward disruption—that didn’t happen yesterday as was evident given the smiling faces of the largest 3 publishers in the nation.

  • I believe this is a necessary step in our cultures, a very expensive (and limiting for the many , most that cannot afford it). But I hope publishers dont marry Apple, why marry a constricted company whose product is extremely expensive, while there are other platforms out there, Kindle, Android tablets, and such.

    If a publisher produces content for an Ipad, then it should produce the same content for the other platforms givig costumers, and potential users the right of choice.

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