With Apple’s iPad textbook push, e-reader question turns from accessibility to access

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America’s love affair with the e-book notwithstanding, digital publishing so far has found surprisingly little success making inroads in the educational world.

Academia’s problems with e-readers have been largely logistical and legal. Amazon, which made a dominant debut in the field of e-books with its Kindle device, also made a fundamental misstep when it neglected the needs of visually impaired readers — a concern dead-tree publishers addressed long ago.

Normally this would be sorted out by the forces of the marketplace. But the Kindle DX had already become the centerpiece of a pilot program to put digital textbooks in the hands of students at Arizona State University. And while the Kindle was capable of reading text aloud, there was at the time no nongraphical user interface that would allow a blind reader to access that capability without aid. This led to a discrimination lawsuit settled in early 2010 with federal intervention.

In another legal headache, Amazon became the target of a different lawsuit in 2009 when a high school student sued the company for deleting an e-book he bought for his Kindle when it was discovered the e-tailer did not have the rights to sell the George Orwell titles 1984 and Animal Farm. The student lost not only the text in question in Amazon’s heavyhanded fumbling with rights issues it was uniquely positioned to have foreseen, but all his own annotations on the matter.

Fast-forward to 2012: The Kindle is still on Fire (pun intended), and Barnes & Noble is poised to spin-off its popular Nook. Apple, which revolutionized the distribution of digital content with iTunes, has some catching up to do in the e-book arena, and it’s looking to its amazingly popular iPad tablet to help it accomplish this. With iPads already gaining some limited traction the classroom, educational publishing may seem a natural opportunity for Apple.

Last week, Apple announced a new initiative that would use its free iBooks application to distribute interactive textbooks that cost $15 or less. The idea is that schools will buy the books and give redemption codes to students.

But where are the iPad tablets themselves going to come from? They start at $499, and that’s a Wi-Fi-only model.

It seems that with issues of accessibility overcome — Apple has always excelled at negating users’ disabilities — the next challenge will be access, as in affordability. With much of the United States still struggling to afford the broadband Internet connections that best complement a technologically literate education, the digital divide is still very real and threatens only to grow as tablets evolve and render obsolete the desktop computers that have finally come down in price enough to be a part of most people’s lives.

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