Throughout the two years Matt MacInnis spent working as senior manager in international education at Apple, he had plenty of opportunity to watch teachers integrate technology into their classrooms as a learning tool. And he found it wholly disappointing.
“If you walk into a classroom today, and then you roll back the clock and walk into a classroom 50 years ago, you’d see certainly some modernization, but it would not be remarkably different,” he said. Technologies like radio, television, and computers offered great promise in the classroom, but haven’t dramatically changed the learning experience, which is still stuck in a model where “we download information into somebody’s head and they’re supposed to march off into the world and manufacture cars,” in MacInnis’s words.
More interactive tools could engage students and fundamentally change the way they interact with their teachers—and each other—while they learned, he believes.
With the promise of Apple’s new iPad looming, MacInnis quit his job in 2009 and founded a company called Inkling, a San Francisco-based startup that has developed a software platform for digital textbooks on the iPad.
Electronic versions of books are nothing new—look at the Kindle—and other companies such as CourseSmart also offer e-textbooks. But Inkling’s product is more than a static PDF rendition of the bound text. Where most digital versions of a biology book would show the same diagram of the parts of the brain that appears on the printed page, for example, Inkling’s version can remove its labels and ask its user to identify the cerebellum by touching it. If the user gets the question wrong, the Inkling software can offer hints. Wonder what parts of a history text the professor thinks are most important? Students can check the professor’s own notes. Want to share notes with a friend, or take a quiz at the end of a chapter? Flip around a model of a molecule? Inkling allows students to do that too.
For MacInnis, it’s less about reproducing a book than creating an interactive experience a student can have with a book.
So far the company only has six texts available, four published by McGraw Hill, one from Cengage Learning, and one from Wiley. “The reason we don’t have 10,000 textbooks overnight is that we don’t just plug in to the database of the publisher and suck down PDFs or XML of their existing content and put it on a screen,” MacInnis says. “The iPad is not a book, and any attempt to shoehorn book content into the iPad in our mind is shortsighted folly.”
Developing a platform that allows this much interactivity required Inkling to create a whole new way to publish content. The company didn’t want its end product to be a book—it had to be a “whole new thing that has video and audio and interactivity and assessment and 3D objects,” MacInnis says. And all of it had to be embedded coherently into a clean user interface.
“All of the pieces that go into inventing a whole new way to publish content are areas where we’ve developed expertise we don’t believe anybody else has,” he says.
Inkling expects to have dozens of titles available in the spring of 2011 and hundreds available for students to download on their iPads in the fall.
But the company, which has about 40 employees and has raised funding from Sequoia Capital and prominent individual investors including Ram Shriram, Mitch Kapor, Peter Currie and Aydin Senkut, isn’t looking to create a new version of every text out there. While there may be tens of thousands of textbooks in print, MacInnis says, only a few hundred sell more than 300,000 copies annually. “It’s about taking some of the highest value content that’s on the market today and turning it into even better content for a device like the iPad,” he says.
Inkling’s texts aren’t just more interactive than printed books–they’re also cheaper. A digital version of McGraw Hill’s Biology, by Raven, et al.—a tome that would run $180 at the bookstore—only costs $149. Best of all, students can buy individual chapters for $3.99, a huge advantage in any course where professors only teach some of the text.
“What’s most interesting about the economic dynamics in this market is that we’re going to see increasing modularization and the decoupling of all of these different monolithic titles into pieces where students pay as they need it, pay as they go, and only buy what they need,” MacInnis says.
For some cash-strapped students, the price of an iPad may be out of reach—they start at $500—but MacInnis expects the cost to drop as competitors introduce their own tablets. And so far, enough people have purchased the device to give Inkling “a healthy business.”
Thousands of students are logged in and using the platform every day and schools including the University of Alabama, Seton Hall, and Abilene Christian University have all started pilot programs using Inkling. Hundreds of schools have launched pilot programs to integrate the iPad into their curricula, or have plans to do so.
So far, MacInnis is pleased with the response.
“The feedback from everyone who touches it is that they have finally seen a glimpse of the future and what is possible on the iPad,” he says.