McGraw-Hill is Apple partner, but still has questions about iBooks

iBookshelfEducational publishing giant McGraw-Hill had a major presence in Apple’s new digital textbooks initiative announced Thursday. The company is one of the first to put high school textbooks in the iBooks 2 app and worked with Apple(s AAPL) on the iBooks Author app.
I talked with McGraw-Hill Education SVP of Strategic Services Vineet Madan on Friday about the company’s own vision for the future of iBooks and interactive course material in general, as well as how it makes sense for the company to have seemingly competing investments in iBooks competitors like Inkling and CourseSmart. Madan also made it clear the company has concerns about maintaining consistently high-quality textbooks that are published with iBooks Author. Here are some of the most interesting points from our conversation.

McGraw-Hill saw the iPad early on but chose not to partner with Apple on iPad textbooks right away

It turns out the publisher wasn’t too keen on the original version of iBooks, according to Madan.

“We’ve been talking with them since iBooks first came out. We said iBooks was insufficient in its form — prior to yesterday — for delivering education content…. It wasn’t a suitable delivery medium for that content. We talked to Apple about what we thought was necessary and ended up working with them to bring that to fruition.”

Instead, back in 2010, McGraw-Hill took a minority stake in Inkling, which has been making interactive textbooks for the iPad for two years, primarily for the higher education and non-education market. They’re also investors in higher-ed focused CourseSmart, whose chilly response to Apple’s entry in the market I wrote about yesterday.

iBooks 2 is only a “first half-step” to the future of e-textbooks

Using interactive material to get students engaged is great. But McGraw-Hill sees a future where students not only learn using digital books but can also can be tested and have the material tailored for particular needs.

“The next step is can you start tracking information about how students are learning and what they’re learning. You need rigorous tested assessments, something the current version of iBooks doesn’t yet support. But you need strong assessment in there and you need to link the data with how students are navigating content to provide tailored instructional paths.”

They don’t lose money charging $15 for a digital textbook instead of $75 for a physical book 

Madan explained the math to me: The high school textbooks they publish sell for between $65 and $85, or an average of $75 each. Each book is used for five years on average, which is $15 per use, per year, or the same as what Apple is setting the price for textbooks in the iBookstore.
But wait; it actually gets better for the big-time publishers: “We are then out of the business of printing books, shipping books, being responsible for warehousing when this scales,” said Madan. That can lead to new investment in more interactive and enriched content.

Even McGraw-Hill execs wonder where school districts will get the money for iPads

In the higher education market in the U.S., mostly everyone has the right hardware and has enough bandwidth. But the story is different in primary and secondary education.

“But in K-12, the big open question that went unanswered yesterday is school districts and their funding environment. They can pay $15 a book, but that’s if they choose to spend $500 to $800 to buy iPads first.”
Madan said he personally was “surprised they didn’t announce some sort of academic pricing or education pricing for iPads to jumpstart this.”

McGraw-Hill is concerned about the quality of content published through iBooks Author

“Opening up the authoring tool to everyone raises questions about the validity and rigor and quality of the instructional tools available [in iBookstore]. … Someone still has to curate and assemble and test. Given the very open nature of the authoring tool, it could end up creating something where there’s a lot of noise. That could run a little counter to the objectives we all have.

But he sounded optimistic about finding a solution. Said Madan, “Collectively, we need to solve that problem. But that’s to come.”