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Monday, July 14, 2008

Free Textbooks

Normally when a PR person approaches me with a story, I'm not all that interested, but this one struck me as a pretty interesting development, so I thought I'd put out the information with a bit of commentary.
Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks, today announced it will soon begin the nation’s largest in-classroom test of open college textbooks. The nationwide beta test of its books involves hundreds of students from 15 colleges and universities across the United States. Flat World Knowledge’s free and open textbooks will replace traditional textbooks in a single class or class section at each participating institution. The beta test begins this August and will run through the completion of the Fall 2008 semester.

Flat World Knowledge has built a business model around offering free textbooks to college students. Through their open platform, students will have access to complete textbooks free of charge, with the option to purchase affordable alternate formats of the content (i.e. print & audio versions of the text, podcast study guides, mobile phone flash cards, etc.).

Flat World Knowledge’s mission is to take the best characteristics of traditional textbook publishing - such as expert-written, peer-reviewed and professionally edited texts -- and then flip the old model on its head. Flat World’s books will be open for faculty to customize, and free to students online. Flat World and its authors earn compensation by offering affordable choices to students beyond the free online book, from printed textbooks for under $30 (printed-on-demand), to audio books for under $20, to downloadable and printable files by the chapter, and more. The company supplements its texts with low-priced study aids like DRM-free podcast study guides, digital flash cards, interactive practice quizzes, and more.
Free textbooks. Pretty cool. I wonder if they can make money with the alternative models. If you look at companies like Cramster that provide community and answers to text book problems - often oriented around particular college texts without the direct involvement of the publisher, then you have to believe that there will be communities around text books emerging and likely you can monetize off of that. Just not sure if it will be the publishers.
Eric Frank, Flat World Knowledge co-founder and chief marketing officer. “This new model of textbook publishing will result in increased choices and dramatically lower costs for students. It can enhance learning by giving instructors more control over content, and by leveraging the power of social learning networks around content. Between the oligopolistic practices of the big publishers on one end of the spectrum, and piracy on the other, lies a better solution – open textbooks.”
There's quite a few things in between - and there's also social text books. But this would seem to be a good approach for publishers to stay relevant in a Wiki world. It will be interesting to see what happens.

6 comments:

Mark said...

Tony - great post - did you see this post on SlashDot?
http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/07/01/1838205

Mark

Eric Wilbanks said...

Very interesting. Now I am all about open source, wikinomics, “we are smarter than me” kind of stuff. I feel like I have fully embraced collaboration as the most effective form of learning. But in watching the videos at Flat World Knowledge (specifically the one on Open Textbooks), I heard warning signals going off all over the place. Here’s why.

The video is presented in such a way that the professor can take a regular textbook, edit it to suit his or her tastes, and then present it to the hoards as if it were accepted knowledge. Can you see the potential danger here? Now I’m not na├»ve…I know that this is a normal part of education everywhere. Educators are in the business of spreading knowledge and ideas as they see fit. But in a “traditional” setting (i.e., “closed” textbooks), when an educator disagrees with a textbook, students get to see both sides and decide for themselves. In the Flat World classroom, educators can fully eliminate the collaborative, back-and-forth of wrestling with ideas that can come from having “locked” textbooks.

I simply don’t see how this promotes social learning or collaboration. What am I missing here?

Paul said...

Eric is noticing a paradigm with this topic that is similar to the current debate over blogs vs traditional news outlets: blogs which tend to be opinion-based, while traditional media is seen as more objective (whether or not it actually is). In this case we have college texts rehashed and freely available, versus the high-priced tomes students rarely use more than once. Additionally, one has the expectation of credibility, and the other is the unknown upstart that needs to prove itself.

I think in today's environment, with technology enabling so much information availability, professors will trend toward more specialized, personalized syllabi for their classes. I agree there should be a rudimentary framework for a a given subject area, to ensure that the basic theories and knowledge are passed on. But perhaps this model is a positive development, especially in light of the increasingly close relationships between colleges and the private sector for job preparation. If the coursework is more configurable around teh basic concepts, that would feasibly generate courses that more readily meet the needs of a given industry.

As far as FWK's model goes, hopefully this is more thought out than it seems. Their model sounds similar to the schemes that helped create and burst the Internet bubble years ago. Everything's free and there's plenty of support, etc.; it sounds wonderful, now it's time to see what the real world makes of it.

Catherine Lombardozzi said...

Thanks for sharing this bit of news. I think it's worth keeping an eye on. I share some of the same reservations as Eric regarding the ability to edit a book - I'm all for the idea you can select portions and add portions that you author, but line by line editing doesn't feel right to me. Still, this seems like an idea whose time has come, and I will be keeping an eye on future developments here.

Mark said...

The underlying dynamic that I think is really interesting is that much like the music and movie industries, here you have a very Industrial Age business, failing to come to grips with the digital age, engaging in predatory pricing schemes and it is now being met with these efforts. I share the same reservations about 'open' textbooks but remain convinced that unless textbook publishers change their practices, this will only continue and expand.

pat said...

Quote from Paul:
"But perhaps this model is a positive development, especially in light of the increasingly close relationships between colleges and the private sector for job preparation. If the coursework is more configurable around teh basic concepts, that would feasibly generate courses that more readily meet the needs of a given industry."

So the purpose of a college education has shifted to advanced job training? OMG, I certainly hope that everyone involved in education is as appalled, frightened, and ashamed as I.