Inkling, a digital textbook company started by ex-Apple education exec Matt MacInnis, wants to make textbooks more like computers.
MacInnis told HuffPost that e-textbooks should be specially converted for digital consumption. They should be more, he said, "than just flat scans of the original material" -- a not-so-subtle dig at Inkling’s main competitor, digital textbook seller Kno. What makes Inkling’s textbooks better, MacInnis said with a bit of braggadocio, is that they "change the way information is consumed."
"There’s a generation that's grown accustomed to collaboration, searchability, and accessibility," MacInnis said. "The textbook is this horrible outlier. It’s isolating. Expectations have changed dramatically; the products that students use to learn have not caught up."
Inkling has released the 2.0 version of its iPad app, and the features it is rolling out drastically improve its -- and this will sound familiar to those of you who read the preceding paragraph -- collaboration, searchability and accessibility. It has added a journal panel, which combines all of the student's notes, highlights and questions; integration with Google and Wikipedia for in-book searching; per-chapter purchases, where students can buy one chapter from a textbook at a time from $2.99 per chapter and, perhaps most impressively, a live "expert" attached to each book -- often the author of the book itself -- who gives notes in addition to the book and can answer questions asked within the book's interface.
WATCH a (rather one-sided) Inkling-produced video about the advantages of their textbooks:
Though the journal panel, Google integration and social question-and-answer features are nice and necessary innovations for students. These are also e-textbook features that Inkling competitor Kno had added a few weeks prior, however. The major advantage of Inkling's digitized versions of the big publishers' textbooks is still that it presents the information in a way that makes you feel like you are gaining something from having your material on a tablet besides portability and convenience.
Inkling designs its textbooks with interactivity in mind. MacInnis displayed a music textbook that had audio clips and sheet music in line with the text, an American history book with documentary footage in video form and a biology textbook with 3D renderings of bones and muscles and molecules that you could spin around to see each part from every side.
WATCH MacInnis explain the advantages of his company's anatomy textbook with the pitch that "you’ll be a better doctor" if you use Inkling's edition:
Inkling’s anatomy and biology textbooks might not make you a better doctor, but they could make you a better medical student: Digital textbooks just make more sense for science subjects, and an informal survey of medical student friends reported that Inkling's books are much more intuitive and smarter than the heavy texts currently in use.
But what about subjects that aren't inherently visual? Take, for example, a chapter from Inkling’s edition of "Give Me Liberty!," an American history textbook. While e-books are generally cheaper than physical textbooks and undoubtedly lighter, this one in particular did little to "reinvent" the source material. To be fair, it's hard to imagine what could be done with the era from 1800 to 1840 to utilize a tablet's core strengths -- though, it would be a good start to make anything on a map that changes over time into a video, or a GIF or something that can really visualize the change.
So, here is Inkling's big problem going up against Kno or Amazon Kindle Textbooks Rental or Barnes & Noble's NOOK Study: Do they add enough to their versions to differentiate themselves from the pack?
Inkling can pump out a new textbook in about 4 to 6 weeks, according to MacInnis, and right now they are approaching 100 natively-rendered e-books. MacInnis said that these books make up over 50 percent of the textbooks used in the United States, but when you compare this with the over 100,000 books that Kno has scanned for iPad, with the same basic note-taking and social media features, most non-scientists might just choose based purely on price and the convenience of having all their receipts from one place.
MacInnis worked in Apple's education wing for 10 years, and recalled a particular visit to a classroom where Apple was piloting laptops for students. He became frustrated by the disconnect between the computer and the book, he told HuffPost. "We’d be giving students $1400 laptops," he said. "And then the teachers would say, 'Turn to page 176.' And I would be like..."
He made a low, guttural sound and shook his head to express his disappointment with the physical textbook, from its flatness to its inability to move.
The crowdsourced social knowledge and Notebook (and price discount) are good first steps toward changing the format of the 21st century textbook that caused MacInnis to shake his head in disgust ten years ago -- and Inkling is on its way toward reinventing the look and functionality of the digital textbook. In order to truly deserve the entirety of the tablet-toting student market, however, MacInnis and Inkling will have to continue to reinvent.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that MacInnis was the head of the education wing at Apple. He was never in charge, though he did work there in the marketing department.