Flat World Knowledge: Open College Textbooks | Opensource.com

Flat World Knowledge: Open College Textbooks

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Today, everywhere in our nation, families – adults, and their children -- are facing a tragic loss of future possibility and personal fulfillment because of high textbook prices. Fact: the cost of traditional textbooks has become a major impediment to students completing a college education, and/or deciding to enter college. It’s important to point out the scale of this problem, and its impact on students, teachers, and our American society.

Long-term demographic research tells us that individuals who achieve college and other post-secondary education credentials 1) have longer life spans; 2) have better access to health care; 3) have better dietary and health practices; 4) have greater economic stability and security; 5) have more prestigious employment and greater job satisfaction; 6) have less dependency on government assistance; 7) have greater use of seat belts; 8) have more continuing education; 9) have greater Internet access; 10) have greater participation in leisure and artistic activities; 11) make more book purchases; 12) have higher voting rates; 13) have more detailed knowledge of government; 14) have more community service and leadership involvement; 15) have less criminal activity and incarceration; 16) have more basic self confidence, and so on. This is only a partial list of well-researched advantages that accrue to those who achieve a post-secondary education; thus, a costly fiscal and social tragedy occurs when these advantages are lost, because every year thousands of students literally cannot afford high-priced traditional college textbooks, and as a result drop out of college, or decide not to attend college.  This is unacceptable.

A very recent, detailed Gates Foundation Study finds that the cost of traditional college textbooks and materials is one of two primary reasons (among six) for students 1) dropping out of college; and/or 2) deciding not to attend college. 

Further, U. S. Department of Labor analysis shows that 72% of the total annual cost of a Community College education is consumed by college textbook expenditures; while public four-year university students pay between 26-42% of their total annual educational costs for college textbook expenditures. These outlandish percentages -- i.e. the high cost of textbooks relative to the total cost of education -- have actually increased since the Department of Labor analysis was completed a few years ago, with textbook prices steadily accelerating, on average, at three times the rate of inflation -- as they have for the last 15 years.

The responsibility for this unacceptable situation falls squarely on the shoulders of traditional educational textbook publishers; their too-high-textbook prices, and inefficient publishing models, are breeding an unacceptable tragedy in the making.  Massive long-term fiscal and social diseconomies result when large numbers of college-age students either drop out of college, or decide not to attend college simply because they are unable to afford their college textbooks. It’s also well known that students have been complaining for years about high textbook costs.

Just one student who leaves school because s/he cannot afford too-expensive college textbooks results in a net cumulative loss in fiscal and social advantage that runs into the millions of dollars over a lifetime. Multiply this loss by many, many thousands of students every year, and the personal and societal toll of the current, traditional textbook is staggering -- running into tens-of-billions of dollars of lost collective opportunity, over thousands of lifetimes!

Another unfolding tragedy that results from American students dropping out college or deciding not to enter college -- due to too-high textbook costs -- is a collective American loss of long-term international competitiveness.

The pain resulting from high textbook prices, and the limits to educational access thus caused, is not shared equally. American students today are more economically challenged, having proportionately less income to spend in terms of real dollars than past generations -- yet traditional college textbooks have increased at three times the rate of inflation for the last fifteen years. High textbook prices are thus contributing to the growing “attainment divide” in America. The traditional college textbook business is broken; it cannot be any more upside-down than it already is; it’s causing losses that all Americans share in and have to pay for, as we collectively pick up the tab for the lost opportunity left in the wake of the traditional textbook publishing industry’s profits, as the industry remains completely out-of-touch with college student’s and teaching institution needs.

Universal access to post-secondary education in America helps create the necessary social ingredients to sustain our open society.  Education stimulates invention and opportunity; education lends power to the promise of democracy; education helps create social equality, putting an end to intolerance of difference.  Cicero, the great Roman philosopher and statesman wrote, "Freedom is participation in power". Cicero has been shown to be largely right though the example of the American experience. Education is an enabler of the "participation in power" that Cicero spoke of -- i.e. the better one understands one's world, the more effectively one can participate in it, shape it, and adapt to the shock of externally induced change -- like the kind of rapid change that our nation is experiencing now, as technology accelerates, and increased international competition challenges our nation as never before. Education also helps to inoculate our culture against the ignorance that domestic and international tyrannies would feed on. In modern American society, college education or post-secondary certification is a key ingredient for personal and political power; without advanced education there is no democracy; there is no equality; there is no opportunity. How ironic, then, that traditional textbook prices have been, for years, thwarting the very open access to college education that is necessary to maintain the American promise.

Aside from the invention of the alphabet, Gutenberg's press and moveable type, and the Internet -- all major disruptors of establishment enterprise in their time -- Open Licensing is surely the most profound development yet to enable the transparent spread of intellectual capital. “Open” innovations include Linux and its various flavors; Apache servers; Moodle, a powerful open learning platform;  the Open Library, providing unprecedented universal ccess to the world’s literature; open pharma offering the promise of widely shared and cheaply available pharmaceutical formulae to save lives;  and Firefox, the world’s most popular web browser. Literally, billions of pieces of intellectual capital -- writing, imagery, research, art, scientific formulae, designs, art, multimedia, and so on are licensed as Open -- with open licensing growing at exponential rates, enabling a new world of creation and discovery -- and now, Open licensing has entered the world of textbook publishing, to become a solution to the high textbook cost problems mentioned above.

High college textbook prices exist only because we choose to let them exist; we no longer have to endure this egregious and untenable situation, because there are viable alternatives to the "old", expensive textbook publishing model; open educational textbook solutions are here, now.

Full disclosure: I am Director of Business Development at Flat World Knowledge, a new venture-capital-backed textbook company, founded by two former long-time executives from Pearson (the world’s largest textbook company) who had grown tired of ”business as usual” in the broken college industry. We create open-licensed college textbooks as a key strategy toward ending the toll taken on American students and American society that results from outmoded pricing and business models deployed by traditional college textbook publishers.

Flat World Knowledge publishes high quality, professionally developed college textbooks, fully supported by instructor manuals, study guides, and other teaching/learning aids -- but that’s where any similarity between Flat World Knowledge and the traditional college textbook publishers ends. Unlike the traditional textbook publishers, our we open license our textbooks, enabling us to offer our textbooks in their entirety, for free, online -- at the same time offering our textbooks in black-and-white (grey-scale), professionally formatted, print soft cover editions for significantly less (80% less, on average) than college textbook prices imposed by traditional textbook publishers.

Flat World Knowledge also offers textbooks in digital formats -- e.g. in download-to-print (PDF) versions (entire, formatted book) and per chapter. We also provide digital audio (Mp3) downloads most of our books in their entirety, or by the chapter. We offer study aids for a virtual pittance, per chapter. All of our textbook content can be used in eBook readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.); our textbook content is also compatible with Learning Management Systems (LMS -- e.g. Moodle, Blackboard, eCollege, Angel, etc.) used in many of today’s colleges and universities.

Openly licensing our textbooks also enables us to bring immediate, complete control over textbook content to instructors and curriculum developers -- a groundbreaking innovation in commercial college textbook publishing. College instructors and curriculum developers are free to alter the content of our textbooks -- i.e. to create their very own derivatives of our textbooks -- all in a very easy drag-and-drop environment. Individual chapters in Flat World Knowledge textbooks are easily rearranged from their original order -- or eliminated altogether -- to fit the needs of the teacher’s specific course outline. College instructors tell us that they love this feature, as it permits them to add their own content, and further adapt our textbooks to their student’s needs and their teaching preferences. Imagine the time, money, and frustration saved by college teachers from this feature, alone. Also, college instructors no longer have to endure the dreaded “book-out-of-print” problem brought by traditional college textbook publishers, as an excuse to force more expensive (and all-too-often largely unchanged, from the last edition) textbooks into the classroom. College teachers have been complaining about this for years. No more.

What's even more exciting is that our publishing and business model is profitable, and fast proving to be self-sustainable.  Our publishing model and our textbooks have proved wildly successful, with Flat World Knowledge textbooks already adopted at more than 500 unique colleges and universities in America, all within our first year of doing business. This is a stunning success in the staid, established world of commercial college textbook publishing, where progress and innovation have always lagged (but somehow, prices have not). We’re letting students and college instructors decide if we’re doing things right. Judging by our results, we’re on our way to forever changing the way college textbooks are solicited, published, and distributed.

In sum, Flat World Knowledge is using open licensing to blow away the traditional college textbook competition, with the best open textbooks -- indeed, with the very best textbooks on our planet -- considering our price/value ratio, and the sheer amount of choice and flexibility we build into out products.

Flat World Knowledge, a for-profit company, shares the spirit of open textbook production with several non-profit, non-commercial open educational resource repository (OER) brethren -- among them, the California Community College Open Text Project and the Connexions Project. We respect and support non-profit efforts in this sector; they are important contributors to change; they help spread the open college textbook meme in academia, where most OER repositories reside.

In the spirit of maintaining our mission, and matching our actions with rhetoric (i.e. walking-the-talk), Flat World Knowledge has created affiliate relationships with non-profit OER groups, and other non-profit educational ventures. We firmly believe in creating cooperative ventures with non-profit open textbook repositories; we believe mutual potentials are best realized when non-profit OER repositories use their power of peer communication to spread the open textbook meme to academic peers, leaving the creation of professionally developed and supported open textbooks to market-savvy, innovative open textbook publishers like Flat World Knowledge, who best understand the crucial marketplace logistics of on-the-ground textbook creation and distribution -- thus insuring superior execution and product support in a very complex distribution channel. Our market knowledge and competence insures that open textbooks will get used, instead of too-often lying unnoticed in OER repositories. The latter (optimal use) is something that remains a challenge in the OER distribution model, because the main competency in academia, where OER projects live and emanate from, is the provisioning of content -- rather than the discovery, organization, development, publishing, marketing, distribution, support, future maintenance of, and reinvestment in open textbook content. Our early success in the market has more than validated for-profit open textbook publishing as perhaps the most powerful and effective means to long-term sustainability of the open textbook marketplace.

The goal of Flat World Knowledge is also our challenge: we challenge all those who publish textbooks and other instructional aids to join us in providing affordable benefit and value to America’s students and teaching institutions, for the sake of the very future of our people, and our nation. Professionally developed, open-licensed textbooks are here to stay; open licensing leverages the naturally occurring empathic quality of sharing that's wired into our species. Open textbook publishing is a public good; it’s the right thing to do. Open licensing enables, in a sustainable way, the impulse for information to be free - in open, distributed networks -- at the same time protecting the creators of that information, in ways that they choose.

One open textbook at a time, we at Flat World knowledge are dedicated and determined to achieve a sustainable, profitable model of open textbook production 1) that enables learners and instructors; 2) that makes education affordable; 3) that opens up opportunity; 4) and, that strives in a sustainable, adaptable way to enable further educational innovation. Open is the only way forward; the “Open genie” is out of the box; Open college textbooks are here to stay; there is no going back; join us.


About the author

Sanford Forte - Sanford is Director of Business Development at Flat World Knowledge. He brings accomplishments in publishing and technology. He began his textbook publishing career with Prentice-Hall, followed by Holt-Rinehardt, Little-Brown, Benjamin Cummings, Springer-Verlag (Telos Library of Science), and Addison-Wesley - in sales, sales management, field editorial, and marketing management positions. He also started and ran a successful used textbook wholesaling company. Looking for new challenges, Sanford...