As we recently reported, the traditional textbook publishing industry is being challenged by a growing movement of offering online versions of textbooks. Flat World Knowledge is leading the charge. The company is in the midst of private beta testing for offering "open college textbooks", a service that aims to provide expert content that can be modified by users via open source for free. We spoke with Eric Frank, founder and chief marketing officer of Flat World Knowledge about their radical educational mission. Flat World Knowledge allows students to subscribe to a textbook and read it online, with the ability to highlight and print. Not only does this make textbooks more available, it also makes them more affordable.
Frank believes that textbooks hold a tremendous amount of potential for impacting the way students learn. However, with escalating costs, they are often more of an obstacle, forcing many students to choose between tuition and books. He wanted not only to create a company that helped offset the financial burden, but also to follow a business model where more access resulted in better business.
Created in 2007, Flat World Knowledge understands that while teachers are eager to innovate within the classroom and want to be able to provide more options for their students, they are often weary of where to start and how to implement. Frank explained that nothing in the way teachers currently review and adopt textbooks into their curriculum has changed, well, at least not at first.
Teachers are still able to receive a book list relevant to their course, choose the ones they'd like to review and receive it, in print, to sample. However, once they are ready to adopt it, they are given an URL to pass along to students. Students then have the option to read online or order a print version. Faculty also have the ability to customize their textbooks -- re-arrange chapters, delete sections, edit content -- so that they fit better into their syllabus. Students, also have the option of interacting with other students about the material and setting up an interface that lets them organize their notes, study aids and other relevant class materials.
Although dependent upon authorship, Flat World Knowledge and other online textbook publishing companies like it are hopeful that it provides another viable platform for scholars to market themselves. Being online pushes content out to a much wider audience with greater academic exposure. In addition, acknowledging that books are sometimes the only tangible proof of one's education, Frank assured us that online texts are available forever, for free via a searchable catalog and are always updated with the newest editions.
Though it also supports a green agenda of going paperless, Flat World Knowledge has yet to adopt that message as its primary marketing tool. Instead it just wants to afford students a choice. At present, Flat World Knowledge has 21 books under contract, with more than 20 colleges and universities already signed up. They have plans for a national marketing campaign in 2009 to coincide with the public launch of their product.
Frank reported that feedback from students, faculty and authors thus far has been positive and the business model seems to be working. They are eager to posit themselves as a leader in the online textbook industry as well as an advocate for open source technology, a combination that Frank believes has great potential for affecting the future of education.