How does Apple fit into digital education?

Apple(s AAPL) sent invitations on Wednesday to an event in New York City next Thursday, in which the company is planning to make “an education announcement.” “Education,” of course, can mean a lot of things. Many are connecting the event with comments Steve Jobs made to his biographer about a project he was working on toward the end of his life, and expecting that the company is going to announce some sort of digital textbook initiative through its iBookstore platform.
There’s a lot of opportunity in digital textbooks, a space that’s rapidly heating up. Here is a collection of figures rounded up by the New York Times (s nyt) last fall that paint a good picture (emphasis ours):

According to the Student Monitor, a private student market research company based in New Jersey, about 5 percent of all textbooks acquired in the autumn in the United States were digital textbooks. That is more than double the 2.1 percent of the spring semester.
Simba Information, a research company specializing in publishing, estimates that electronic textbooks will generate $267.3 million this year in sales in the United States. That is a rise of 44.3 percent over last year. The American Association of Publishers estimates that the college textbooks industry generated a total of $4.58 billion in sales last year.

So it’s not necessarily a huge mystery why Jobs and Apple would want to be a part of a digital textbook and learning revolution, especially since it has a great tool for reading textbooks in the iPad. There are already 40 million of these sold, with another burst of sales expected this year when the next-generation iPad is revealed. But there are also plenty of companies that already do this. It’s not as if Apple would be filling an entirely gaping void here if it were to launch a textbook store or publishing platform. Here are some of the companies who are already making textbooks available on iOS devices:

  • Inkling. Inkling is a two-year-old San Francisco startup that debuted the latest version of its iPad textbook app in August (see our video here), which combines not just reading school texts, but cool social and interactive ways to study with others via the app and in-app links to external, authoritative sources. Inkling, notably, has taken investment from leading book publisher McGraw-Hill and education services provider Pearson. Inkling has 110 titles so far, mostly geared at college students, with some texts for high school and non-school titles as well.
  • Kno. Kno started out as its own e-reader for textbooks, but the company quickly moved to a software-only approach. Now the company has 150,000 textbooks from 45 publishers available. Their textbooks are viewable on Apple devices via the Textbooks by Kno on the iPad. Kno also has extra services beyond just reading, like its feature that generates flashcards for studying saving you the hassle of writing out the cards yourself. Last fall, the company was the top-downloaded educational app in Apple’s App Store.
  • CourseSmart. The company was founded by a group of higher education textbook publishers to offer digital titles. It currently has 20,000 college textbook titles and has had an iOS app for reading them for over a year.
  • Vitalsource. Ingram Content Group — the umbrella company for several textbook publishers — also has its own app, with 60,000 80,000 digital textbook titles available for download to any iOS device.

The iBookstore hasn’t been the smashing success that its other digital stores have been, like the App Store or iTunes, but textbooks would be a way to drive sales and interest in the platform. That said, what happens to these companies that are using Apple’s platform already for digital texts?
Kno CEO Osman Rashid says the company is secure in its position as one of the top providers of digital textbooks on Apple’s platform. “The robustness of the catalogue is what wins,” he said. Kno is working to differentiate itself by also providing ways for students to personalize their learning, as with the flashcard feature. Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, didn’t seem threatened by what Apple might announce either.
“Apple has always done cool stuff in education, and this will be a continuation of that tradition,” MacInnis said in an interview. He says that based on Jobs being very public about his concern for K-12 textbooks, he added, “I’m sure they’ll do some interesting content-related things for the iPad and for K-12.” But “textbooks,” he says, is the wrong word to describe where this entire industry (and possibly Apple) is going. It’s too old-fashioned for what digital learning tools are going to become. “That’s going to have to go away. The future of publishing is learning software and analytics and feedback and rich technology.”