Paper Books vs. iBooks — An Overhyped Debate?

GUEST COLUMN | by Jane Wolff

Apple sold 11.8 million iPads during the second quarter of its 2012 fiscal year, a phenomenal 151 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter. With an iPad mini rumored to be launching this year, it would be reasonable to expect that Apple will be able to further build upon its iPad success story.

Though the initial success of Apple iPad was in the personal use segment, it’s revolutionized a number of verticals including entertainment, healthcare, education, travel and many more. Last year, Apple further strengthened the iPad positioning in the education segment by launching iBooks 2 – thereby empowering students with a new digital learning mechanism. The company also launched iBooks Author, a free textbook creation and publishing tools to facilitate the process of launching iBooks.

Back then, Apple claimed it was reinventing the textbook. Critics were quick to point out that paper books were still better than iBooks on several fronts. Since then, the iBooks vs. paper books debate has been a hot topic in the education and publishing segments alike. While there’s no doubt that iBooks is a game changer, it would be an overkill to say that we’re ready to go paperless with our education and embrace iBooks in favor of paper books.

To be honest, I think this is an overhyped debate as iBooks vs. paper books isn’t really an either/ or proposition. Here are a few simple arguments to support the theory that iBooks are meant to complement paper books, not replace them in our education system.

Digitization. For a start, it’s an unrealistic proposition to convert all existing educational books to iBooks. As we know it, educational books have been around since forever and it would be unwise to assume that all that content can be digitized one fine day – impractical to say the least. None the less, it’s always a good idea to convert legacy educational content to iBooks format to ensure that it doesn’t get lost with time.

Non Tech-savvy Audience. While carrying iPads in schools and colleges is hipster, not all students can afford it. Further, it’s unwise to enforce iPads and iBooks on students or teachers who have hardly been exposed to technology advancements such as smartphones and tablets. The iPad is still a luxury in third-world countries where students still find it difficult to afford paper books. However, if you own an iPad, iBooks is an irresistible learning proposition.

Durability. iBooks definitely scores one up on the durability quotient. Of course, one can argue that you can always take good care of your paper books to prevent any wear and tear. None the less, it’s fair to assume that digitizing a paper book in the iBooks format will help maintain it over a longer period of time.

Interactivity. Apple argues that paper books lack interactivity. On the other hand, Apple critics claim iBooks leaves little to the imagination and thereby hampers a student’s ability to visualize the missing pieces of interactivity. I think both groups have a valid point and it would be unfair to side with one or the other. None the less, there’s no denying that iBooks are a blessing in disguise for students who‘d benefit from greater interactivity.

Current. Keeping paper books current is a challenge. New editions come out every year and go through a rigorous update process. On the contrary, iBooks can be updated on the fly thereby ensuring that students always get the latest and greatest content.

All in all, it’s really not about picking paper books or iBooks. After all, the need of the hour is to improve our education system and benefit from the technology advancements. In that context, I believe an optimal mix of iBooks alongside paper books is the best way forward.


Author Jane Wolff develops learning resources for children and schools; Sopris Learning offers many tools and resources including a literacy curriculum.

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