Computer giant Apple released a new version of its iBooks application that is geared toward interactive digital textbooks as Newton County Schools, and districts around the country, invest more in portable digital readers and devices like the iPad.
Newton County Schools has more than 700 iPads for student use. Technology officials and teachers are using the mobile tablet computers for not just texts, but for video and Internet components and applications designed for specific subjects.
"Some people are in the mindset that there has to be a book, but we must not lose sight of the fact that a tremendous amount of digital resources that will enhance and make the subjects more engaging for students," said Dr. Gary Shattuck, director of technology and media services for Newton County Schools.
Apple's new app iBooks 2, which is available for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, is a new version of its book reader. Books and textbooks on iBooks 2 have the capability to be highly interactive and be incorporated with video, interactive images and links to other content on the Internet.
Major textbook publishers have been making electronic versions of their textbooks for years. Until recently, there has not been any hardware suitable to display the books, so e-textbooks have had little impact. PCs are too expensive and cumbersome to be good e-book machines for students. Dedicated e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle have small screens and cannot display color.
Tablet computers like the iPad, however, are both portable and capable of showing textbooks in vivid color. Apple is setting up a textbooks section in its online iTunes store.
Educators are eyeing digital textbooks for several reasons. One is cost. School districts spend millions of dollars for textbooks every year. Newton County budgeted $850,000 this year for textbooks, according to the administration. While the costs for interactive digital textbooks are not readily available - indeed, publishers are now scrambling to figure out how to take advantage of Apple's new software - digital books on iTunes and on Amazon tend to be significantly cheaper than a new physical copy.
"Hopefully, we'll see quality products inclusive of the meaty content traditional textbooks have provided," said Superintendent Dr. Gary Mathews. "No doubt they will be more interactive. In this economy, the price needs to be right as well."
Among the launch titles released for Apple's iBooks will be two high school textbooks - Biology and Environmental Science - from Pearson PLC and five from McGraw-Hill. They will cost $15 or less, said Phil Schiller, Apple's head of marketing.
Another major advantage for digital textbooks is they can be continually updated. Holly Dubois is principal at South Salem Elementary School, which has 135 iPads, enough to stock a cart for each grade level. She and Shattuck said updated content is critically important for many subjects.
"Textbooks are costly, and the minute they're published they're outdated," Dubois said.
Shattuck said that Apple's push into textbooks is important because it has the clout and prestige to get publishers to innovate new ways to use its technology or platform. Eventually, electronic textbooks could be used on any device, whether made by Apple, Amazon, Google or a company that is not yet in the market.
Purchasing an iPad or other tablet device for every student poses its own challenges, however, including care and storage of the devices, where they would be permitted to be used and the costs of purchasing 19,000-plus tablets.
All but four Newton County schools have wireless Internet access, so students can bring their own portable devices to access information on the web or download apps such as iBooks. Shattuck and Dubois said the district has filters and firewalls in place to block inappropriate content. Both said there have been few issues of students abusing their Internet privileges.
"Kids are trying out their own devices, and that's one less we have to buy," said Shattuck.
It also provides the schools the opportunity to teach students critical lessons about Internet safety, how to be a good digital citizen and how to evaluate the information and websites they find on the Internet.
Teachers have been incorporating interactive technology in their lessons for several years. In the last decade, large devices called ActivBoards have proliferated in classrooms, including in Newton County.
ActivBoards, which are interactive digital display whiteboards, can incorporate webpages, play video, allow students and teachers to work on problems on the board. Dubois said the lesson plans teachers create using the boards are saved and can be accessed by other teachers at any time.
Much of the county's technology purchases has been funded with Title I money, which is a federal allotment to schools with a certain percentage of low-income students. Portions of Title I funding are dedicated to technology purchases.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.