Live From SXSWedu: A Closer Look at Pearson’s E-Textbooks

Edweek.pearson.0306.tomassini.jpgIf you remember, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt partnered with Apple in January to provide e-textbooks for the new iBooks 2 application on the iPad. On Tuesday, Mike Evans, a senior vice president at Pearson, gave attendees at the South by Southwest education conference (SXSWedu) in Austin, Texas, a closer look of how the textbooks actually work.

The audience seemed to leave with more questions than answers about the e-textbooks, seen as a leading example of education innovation by members of the media, bloggers and, oh yeah, the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Pearson offers four different e-textbooks exclusive to the iBooks, with more expected down the road. (iBooks is the revamped bookstore application offered by Apple, similar to its App Store.) They are interactive, with 3-D graphics, digital notetaking capabilities, and animation-based assessment (some of which must be completed offline).

But despite the hype around its Apple e-textbooks, Evans noted that Pearson offers 300 other digital titles for other platforms. Some of the mainstream media treated the Apple announcement as the first interactive digital textbook ever, but these have been around for awhile, in different iterations.

And as some audience members pointed out Tuesday, Pearson’s e-textbooks look a lot like print textbooks, only fancier and with moving parts.

“The content dissemination is pretty much the same,” one man in the audience commented. “The only advantage I can see is the navigation.”

“It’s a fair question and one that’s regularly asked,” Evans responded.

This seems to be a critical point. The aforementioned U.S. Secretary announced plans to have digital textbooks in every classroom. But it must be questioned whether those digital textbooks actually transform learning for the better, or if they are simply digital re-creations of print textbooks—a mere form of spinal relief.

That’s likely where the pricing becomes key. If it’s cheaper to purchase e-textbooks, it becomes somewhat of a moot point if the experience is the same. But if it’s not, districts will question whether the e-textbooks are as innovative as they should be for the price.

Evans explained that each e-textbook is offered on iBooks for $14.99.

When the district purchases the books, each student is given an individual license for it. That textbook, and all of the updates, belong to that student for life (so when you need that Geometry textbook 20 years later…). Evans told me after the session that Pearson and Apple often co-sell to districts—promoting iPads for the classrooms and the e-textbooks that live on them—but they haven’t joined forces to bundle products yet.

The break-even point is about six years, Evans said. That’s roughly the lifespan of a print textbook, which is much more expensive but can’t be updated.

There’s been some dispute to these numbers. Lee Wilson, a veteran of the education industry, blogged exhaustively that Apple e-textbooks actually cost six-to-seven times more than print textbooks. Using estimated data from his own experience and from technology directors, he determined Apple textbooks cost $71.55 per student, per class, as opposed to $14.26 for print textbooks. He factored purchase of the devices into cost. (I urge you to read his post, and his follow-up, and judge the numbers yourself.)

He also hinted at more dynamic versions of the textbooks, that integrate with other Pearson classroom technology, like its assessment tools and social learning products.

“We see this as a step in the journey,” Evans said. “It’s not mission accomplished.”

Either way, if the price tag for iPads and e-textbooks ends up being too costly and districts aren’t seeing much of a different from their print past, meeting Arne Duncan’s digital textbook goals may be tough.

Photo: Pearson’s “Geometry Common Core” e-textbook for the iPad. (Jason Tomassini/Education Week)

2 thoughts on “Live From SXSWedu: A Closer Look at Pearson’s E-Textbooks

  1. Not a whole lot of use in simply digitizing print material from textbooks. As you mention, the really useful innovations will come as we upgrade from basic digitized text. A company in Utah has developed a really cool take on the e-textbook– a digitized textbook that the author can update at any time, and that gives readers direct access to each other and to the author, to create a kind digital of learning community around the book. Readers and author can share comments, notes, work, etc using the book as a platform. The thing that I like most about the platform is that it gives the reader the ability to influence the direction that the book continues to take. It’s called LiveBook. There’s a press release about it at

  2. Both Pearson and McGraw Hill iBook textbooks disappoint for another reason as well. They are designed in a way that limits use to learners who are able readers and can see the content. Although some of the the main content can be read with VoiceOver text-to-speech, most of the images lack alternative text and equations cannot be read aloud. These digital textbooks are not accessible and should not serve as exemplars for the development of future iBooks. Among the textbooks now available via the Apple Bookstore, only the E. O. Wilson Foundation "Life on Earth" textbook is reasonable accessible and demonstrates some effort to make the content usable by all learners.

    If the content developer takes the time to ensure that the text is live and that images are supported by alternative text that can be read with TTS, then instructional content and resources can be made usable by those with print disabilities. Many learners with print disabilities obtain the Read2Go iPad app from Bookshare to read textbooks created from NIMAS files and a vast library of other DAISY materials and benefit from TTS, synchronized highlighting and support for effective navigation through the material. But, in addition to this option available to a relatively small percentage of learners, we hope to encourage publishers to create accessible versions that will work with all users, right from the start.

    This is the time for those who prepare purchase orders for digital learning materials to demand that those materials are accessible and include learning supports that are not achievable within print. This applies to textbooks, eLearning delivery systems and content, and other learning materials that acquired by K-12 and higher education systems.

    It is important to emphasize that the use of TTS should never be considered a substitute for high quality reading and braille instruction but it can provide access, participation and engagement in learning activities to those who may otherwise be excluded.

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