Will the iPad Really Revolutionize Textbooks?

Apple's iPad has been hailed as a smartphone-laptop hybrid and a savior of journalism, but its most important contribution might be to the textbook market. Yesterday Atlantic Business contributor Menachem Kaiser predicted that the iPad would take off among college students primarily because iBooks might offer the ability to buy textbook chapters the same way you can buy songs on iTunes. Thanks to companies like Inkling, that's only the first step:

Inkling is working directly with textbook publishers. First, they'll port their existing tomes onto Apple's iPad as interactive, socialized objects. Then, they'll create all-new learning modules -- interactive, social, and mobile -- that leave ink-on-paper textbooks in the dust.

This is very exciting news, but let's not forget that electronic textbooks already exist. Some of them do much more let you read the text on a laptop -- they save highlighted passages and electronic notes, the text is searchable. So why they aren't taking off?

One explanation is that the technology is still buggy. Another is that the technology is waiting for an exciting platform like iPad (although its unclear to me why other touch-technology e-readers like Sony don't offer similar potential, although without color.) Another explanation is that professors haven't been steered toward offering and mastering e-books. Certainly, if my experience was any indication, professors are generally about two decades behind in tech savvy.

Another explanation is that the incentive for publishers to offer superior e-textbooks is dulled by the economic reality that e-textbooks generally sell for 50 percent off. That's even worse if students started to download the chapters a la carte, or figure out ways to share versions of the chapters over a network. And it's even worse when you factor in the 30 percent cut that Apple takes on book sales.

But the potential is thrilling, nonetheless. Here's Paul Boutin from VentureBeat on how Inkling and e-textbooks could change the way students interact with reading assignments:

The iPad makes it possible to replace static images with interactive puzzles that MacInnis says burn important concepts in to students' brains better and longer. He showed me a demo learning module that explained the biological concept of cellular mitosis. It starts with a real microscope image of a cell. A caption, simultaneously spoken by a voiceover (They call this karaoke mode. It turns out to help memory better than either text or speech by itself) instructs me to tap the cells nucleus three times to simulate its breakdown. Further steps in the mitosis process require me to pinch, drag or swipe components in the cell after identifying them. When I'm done, I have a memory of having walked through the process physically, rather than just scanning an illustration with my eyes...

Besides the interactive color format, Inkling's technology goes beyond the Kindle and other readers by making it possible to hop around a book, to hand out individual chapters as assignments, and to take notes in highlighter yellow right on the text. The notes are sharable among a social network of students and instructor.