When Apple announced its initiative to bring iPads into schools and provide textbooks in digital format, the reaction among many was enthusiastic. iPad textbooks are more interactive, they can be easily updated and they can’t be easily vandalized. The price Apple announced at their launch event — $14.99 per textbook — also sounded like a steal, certainly far cheaper than traditional textbooks. But when you dig into the fixed costs associated with digital textbooks vs. their paper counterparts, there are some major reasons to believe that iPad textbooks might not be coming to a school near you any time soon.
The biggest is that the textbooks themselves don’t turn out to be cheaper. A representative of textbook publisher McGraw-Hill made clear to Mashable shortly after Apple’s announcement that the functional cost of a digital textbook for a school will actually be the same as the paper version, despite the much lower sticker price. Because of the way iBooks will be linked to specific user accounts, reuse from year-to-year isn’t possible; a freshman algebra textbook purchased in 2012 will need to be repurchased for new incoming freshman in 2013. If you use the standard cost and lifespan estimates for paper textbooks of $75 and five years, the digital versions end up costing the same as the paper editions.
So if textbooks cost the same, then going with iPads actually ends up costing schools much more, because of course, the schools need to purchase iPad hardware on top of the textbook software. And that’s not a one-time cost — iPads don’t last forever. Apple tends to refresh the device every year, and judging by how poorly my heavily-used, three-year-old iPhone was functioning when I finally upgraded in January, a four-year lifespan is probably a good estimate (if not a little generous). Further, iPads can and do break. Which will cost more to replace, this or this?
The infographic below, created by our friends at Online Teaching Degree, details the costs associated with iPad textbooks versus traditional paper editions. Of course, it is important to note that iPad versions come with numerous tangible benefits that can’t be matched by paper books — they’re interactive, they can access the web, they’re better for a student’s health (carrying one iPad instead of multiple heavy books) and they can be kept up-to-date in real time. However, unless Apple and textbook publishers can come up with ways to greatly reduce the cost — via things like drastically cheaper iPad hardware, innovative trade-in programs and discount volume licensing for textbooks — it is unlikely that many schools will be able to absorb the sizable cost increase necessary to get iPads in the classroom.