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.

User profile image.
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.


First, I must say that the Flat World Knowledge site works great and the tools look like a dream. It is awesome how educators can rearrange and edit down to the paragraph level for customizing textbooks for class. The philosophy in this article is spot-on. I congratulate you all on your successes thus far.

However, I'm still seeing <a href="http://iquaid.org/2009/02/07/free-and-open-texbook-fail/">the problem I saw a year ago</a>, that the content is all licensed in a non-free way. The NC variant of the CC license represents 100% of the site content licensing, based on a full audit I just did of the catalog. Considering all your arguments for movement toward free and open, I'm presuming you understand the social, community, and economic factors at work. Frankly put, free and open content are going to compete with more strength against proprietary variants, similar to software.

I hear your desire and plans to move the field of publishing forward. My concern is, doing this in a non-free and non-open content way is furthering some of the damage of the traditional publishing model.

What are your plans for modernizing this part of your licensing? Do you have a vision for removing this final freedom-restriction on the content?

What about offering a mix of free/open and non-free/open content licensing and seeing which texts are used in which ways? Let them truly compete in your marketplace.

Is this all part of your master plan to move from a non-free to a free and open model for textbook publishing? If so, can you please <a href="https://www.theopensourceway.org/wiki/How_to_loosely_organize_a_community#Start_open_marketing_soonest">reveal the timeline to us</a>?

There are real issues with a CC NC license, most of which are <a href="http://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/NC">discussed in this article on FreedomDefined.org</a>. <a href="http://iquaid.org/2009/02/07/free-and-open-texbook-fail/">I covered a fair amount in my previous blog post</a>.

The main thing is, the NC is a non-free license, in that it provides field of use restrictions. It is <i>not</i> considered to be a <a href="http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Licensing#Bad_Licenses_3">free and open content license according to Fedora Legal</a>.

I appreciate that in this article you did not make a direct equation with free and open source software, which was one of my deep concerns of last year. Claiming to be free and open when not really so is given the label of <i><a href="http://www.fauxpensource.org/">fauxpen</a></i>. Yet, I am concerned that, in looking through the Flat World Knowledge catalog, I see the up-front license field says "Creative Commons" without a link to the specific license, leaving an unclear impression.

From the parts of the customization tools I saw, the licensing is not mentioned in the initial pages. I found the actual license notice only when reading the book, either the original or the customized version.

By contrast, all examples in your article are clear on their licensing, and they most often choose the CC BY license (attribution required.) Finding this information is one or two clicks away from their front page.

Sage Bionetworks, behind the "open pharma" link, is still exploring licensing but has the site under the CC BY license and <a href="http://sagebase.org/INTRO/FAQ.html">otherwise seems to follow that philosophy</a>. As a site of scientific pursuit, a free and open content license that focuses on attribution seems natural.

Open Library recognizes that most of their work is not copyrightable, and <a href="http://openlibrary.org/about/license">specifies that for contributors</a>.

The Community College Open Textbook Collaborative has a site under the CC BY license and is <a href="http://www.collegeopentextbooks.org">using a definition of open textbook that does not require free-as-in-freedom</a>. When you dig through the catalog there is a mix of licensing, including free and non-free variants. I looked over each page and my impression was a mix of 66% free and 33% non-free. Obviously, the free content is going to improve over time in usage and contribution, where the others are more likely to remain static.

Connexions seems to have all work under the CC BY license, as per <a href="http://cnx.org/aboutus/">their philosophy</a>.

Flat World Knowledge has a lot of promise to be a game changer here, especially with the strong ties in your leadership team back to traditional publishing. But until you can truly free your content, <a href="https://www.theopensourceway.org/wiki/What_your_organization_does_wrong_when_practicing_the_open_source_way#Only_part_way_to_free_and_open_leaves_you_in_limbo">you are going to have none of the supposed benefits of the traditional publishing model and not enough of the benefits of the free and open source model</a>.

This is a good example of how "open" has become meaningless. Decades ago community software developers wrestled with the issue of whether it was legitimate and sound policy to use copyright to prohibit commercialization; they concluded that it was not. Linux, Apache, and Moodle, cited by Mr. Forte as examples of "open licensing", are in fact licensed quite differently from this company's textbooks, as their terms contain no commercial use restrictions.

The Linux kernel briefly was licensed by Linus Torvalds under <a href="http://ftp.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/Historic/old-versions/RELNOTES-0.01">an anti-commercial license</a>, but Torvalds <a href="http://ftp.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/Historic/old-versions/RELNOTES-0.12">soon switched to the GPL</a>. Had the kernel remained under that earlier license, it would have been about as world-changing as, say, minix (which itself <a href="http://minix1.woodhull.com/faq/mxlicense.html">eventually adopted a FOSS license</a>). The other day was the <a href="https://blogs.apache.org/foundation/entry/the_apache_software_foundation_announces2">15th
anniversary of the Apache web server project</a>. Does anyone think Apache would even have been remembered today had it chosen an anti-commercial license? (And needless to say there would have been no Red Hat, no opensource.com, and we wouldn't be having this discussion at all.)

Thanks for the well-wrought, thoughtful responses and queries - including essential agreement on the dire need to reshape the college textbook publishing sector in service of creating better opportunities for America's college students, and our collective American future. Flat World Knowledge will continue to innovate in service of bringing the highest-quality Open textbook value to students and teaching institutions, everywhere.

That said, Flat World Knowledge Chief Openness Officer, David Wiley, has already eloquently addressed some of the reservations that deal with the issue of various flavors of open licensing expressed above. So, rather than restating David's work, I'll link <a href="http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1050">directly</a> <a href="http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1196">to</a> it <a href=" http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1109">here</a> .


verey good

verey nic

tHank's . . .

This article really helped me .....

Why not make use of Wikibooks http://www.wikibooks.org/ and Wikisources http://wikisource.org/wiki/Main_Page. They are free as in "free beer" and as in "free speech". This could be the next success story in education as Wikipedia was in encyclopedias. Education is not an industry but part of commons. So let's make it that way, wikiway.

I've seen Quaid's good work on "The Open Source Way", a book about online communities by online communities. Being a community project, it makes sense that they allow commercial use. (I'm guessing it gets support from Red Hat, but even if they wanted they couldn't get away with a non-commercial license while maintaining the goodwill of the Fedora community.)

The Flat World project, however, is bringing resources to bear in a setting where open approaches are moving slowly. Their innovations, experiments and their success in delivering cheap and free textbooks to college students are great to see.

I too would like to see them be more open, dropping the NC clause, which restricts collaboration. (Note that even two projects using the CC-BY-NC-SA license cannot share content if they both use an exception allowing their own commercial use - and that exception is the only compelling reason I can see for the NC clause.)

But is that realistic? It looks like the injection of funds came because Flat World's model looked financially viable
There is no Wikipedia of textbooks - the mass collaboration that has created Wikipedia, wikiHow and notable smaller projects like Appropedia, has failed to follow through in Wikibooks. Similar projects like Wikiversity and WikiEducator are doing interesting things - they too have produced some great pages, even small modules, but <strong>no textbooks</strong>. Juha, maybe you have ideas for how Wikibooks can produce quality textbooks, but it's not a viable option yet.

Putting a structured resource like a textbook together is probably a far trickier task for a community than the kinds of wiki resources where each page can be managed almost independently. At the very least, such a project needs community managers, and probably recognized experts, and perhaps other roles besides, and generally will need to pay to have people perform these roles in a dedicated and sometimes full-time way.

Now, I hope that will change, and I know the game's not over. I can imagine a future for more open textbooks, in several ways:
* Government funding. Either by "buying" textbooks from open textbook projects, or by directly funding various projects that create or contribute to projects, govts can fulfill their role of supporting public goods. These projects could be community, non-profit, or corporate-managed.
* Foundations may also choose to fund such projects, in the same way they now help fund Wikipedia.
* Flat Earth might "iterate towards openness" by 1. adding a sunset to their NC clause, 2. improving the ways that a community (starting with the users of their textbooks) to contribute back (I'm on a phone with a slow connection and haven't checked how will this is happening already.), and 3. allowing contributors in that communities to share their contributions under additional licenses, and finding a way for someone accessing a page to check which licenses apply to which parts of a page (e.g. I'd be more keen to contribute if I could add CC-BY-SA to my edits in a meaningful way) - this would also be useful for a site such as wikiHow which is NC for historical reasons.

For now I see Flat Earth's work as a big positive, and I hope the pioneering work it's doing and the inroads it is making now will allow it or others to do the same thing I future in a more open way.

I left my point about financial viability unfinished above. Yes there are businesses which use an open model that allows others to use their work commercially without paying royalties. However it's a rare thing and I suspect *almost always* less profitable, and I'm sure a much harder sell to get venture capital for such a model.

To make the more open (no-NC) model feasible, funding from sources dedicated to supporting public goods, looks necessary. i.e. govts and donors

Very useful resource. Open college text books have interesting prospects and features!

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