Innovation That Matters

Open source approach to textbook publishing

Publishing & Media

Textbooks have long made up an all-too-significant proportion of college students’ annual costs, currently approaching an average of USD 1,000 per year in the US, according to Make Textbooks Affordable. General outcry has ensued, but a new experiment from publisher Flat World Knowledge just may provide a new–and ad-free–solution. Beginning this month and continuing through the Fall 2008 semester, Flat World Knowledge is conducting a beta test in which it is offering four different textbooks online for free to hundreds of students at 15 colleges and universities across the United States. The texts are from the areas of business and economics, and will replace traditional textbooks in a single class or class section at each participating institution. Not only will students have free online access to the expert-written, peer-reviewed and professionally edited texts, but the texts will be open as well through a Creative Commons licensing scheme, giving faculty the ability to customize them as they wish for their classes. Unlike other free text ventures out there–such as US-based Freeload Press and Danish Ventus Publishing, both of which have been covered by our sister site–Flat World’s business model doesn’t depend on advertising. Instead, it offers affordable supplementary materials to students beyond the free online book, including printed, on demand textbooks for around USD 30; audio books for around USD 25; and downloadable and printable files by the chapter. Also available are low-priced study aids like podcast study guides, digital flash cards, interactive practice quizzes and more. Eric Frank, Flat World’s cofounder and chief marketing officer, explains: “The time has come for open textbooks. 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.” Flat World plans to collect feedback over the course of this semester-long test, and then commercially launch its concept worldwide in time for the Spring 2009 school period. The launch will feature an expanded product roster of eight textbooks, all focused initially on business and economics subjects. A total of 15 textbooks are currently under contract and in Flat World’s pipeline. Free and open software is already gaining ground in the world of technology, and now we have the possibility of a similar pattern in textbook publishing. There’s no doubt cash-strapped college students love free love, as has already been shown with photocopies, notepaper and notebooks. Will this one take hold? You can bet there are countless students hoping so. One to watch! (Related: Textbook rental for college students.) Spotted by: Flemming Birch



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