And let’s stipulate that the announcement was spectacular. The potential for digital books to save schools money and to improve the way kids learn is nothing if not vast. Apple’s first few digital books are bright, beautiful, intuitive, interactive and academically sound. Students won’t just read them, but experience them on Apple’s elegant iPad.
And when Apple does something, it does it big, meaning that before long books will be available in all the core subjects for all the K-12 grades. Best of all, none of the books will cost more than $15, far cheaper than the roughly $100 a school might pay for a hardcover text. With schools straining under relentless budget pressures, far less is always good.
But there is a bit of a cloud over all this. I’ll let Louise Bay Waters explain. She’s superintendent of Leadership Public Schools, which runs charter high schools in Oakland, Richmond, Hayward and San Jose — schools that have embraced open-source digital textbooks that are accessible on almost any platform and cost nothing.
“There are a number of issues,” Waters says of the Apple books. “The major one is it’s designed for iPad. Well, they’re really expensive.”
Indeed. And the books? Even at the bargain price of about $15, they cost about $15 more than free.
So here’s my idea to make Apple’s initiative a game-changer: The company reported recently that it was sitting on nearly $100 billion in cash. What if it were to take 10 percent of that and create an endowment for the advancement of electronic textbooks and learning?
And let’s say Apple took 5 percent of its endowment each year (making money for the foundation on the rest through investments) and used it to provide grants. That’s $500 million a year that could go toward buying schools iPads (about 1 million) or Apple textbooks (more than 33 million) or funding the work being done by outfits in Silicon Valley, like the CK-12 Foundation and Curriki, which are creating free digital textbooks that are accessible on computers, iPads, Kindles, PCs, Android tablets and smartphones.
That would be more than the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, which was reported to have made $234 million in grants in 2010.
Yes, such largesse would be unusual for Apple, which is not known for philanthropy. But consider this: One of the things Steve Jobs talked about before he died was the importance of digital textbooks. He even talked to biographer Walter Isaacson about providing the books for free — though students would still need an iPad — and helping schools cut through the bureaucratic textbook certification process.
“The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade,” Isaacson quotes Jobs saying in “Steve Jobs,” “and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.”
What better way to honor Jobs, then, than to set up an e-book endowment in his name?
It would ensure that schools actually would save money by moving to Apple’s books, a prospect that isn’t as certain without a subsidy. And it would eliminate the dreary possibility that without subsidies wealthy schools would deploy iPads and Apple’s e-books while poor schools would make due with outdated hardcover books.
Providing free iPads to schools might also have a business benefit for Apple, a fact that would give the company cover with shareholders.
“This is what they know from the Macs,” says Waters, who knows a thing or two about student behavior. “If you get kids hooked in school on a product line, they’ll use that on their own in adulthood.”
Besides providing free iPads and e-books, Apple’s foundation could help keep the playing field level by contributing to efforts like CK-12 and Curriki, thereby helping them provide schools with free books that are accessible on devices far cheaper than iPads.
At the same time, the contribution would foster innovation in digital textbooks by allowing a number of enterprises, with their own approaches, to work on the technology that will carry our children through the 21st century.
I’ve even come up with a name for the foundation: The Steve Jobs One More Thing Foundation.
Crazy idea, you say? If so, then here’s to the crazy ones.