Monday, October 27, 2008

Review -- "Flat World Knowledge: an open-source textbook revolution?"

For direct link to original article, click title.

I know I'm not the only person who felt totally robbed by the school bookstore right before fall semester started. I'm actually looking at my receipt right now, and the total for all of my textbooks came out to $647.50. What a scam. I'm just not going to buy any books next semester. Kidding.. kind of.. This article made me slightly bitter (if you couldn't tell by my introduction). It discusses the launch of a website called Flat World Knowledge, which provides "high-quality" textbooks free of charge. It's really too bad it started up only this past September; had it been established a couple months earlier, maybe I wouldn't have had to spend SO MUCH MONEY on textbooks (and as a side note: of the 5 textbooks I've bought, I only use 1).
Prentice Hall Business Publishing is one of the top publishers of textbooks in the country. Their Director of Marketing Eric Frank quit the company he had been working under for 11 years to found Flat World Knowledge. Not surprisingly, his idea of providing textbooks for free online confounded many of his colleagues. Frank's line of reasoning that led him to founding Flat World Knowledge was simple: the current college textbook system is, frankly, hated by everyone. Students hate the fact that textbooks run, on average, $100 a pop. What makes them even more miserable is that as soon as they buy a textbook, a new edition for said book is already in the making, and any shred of hope they had for buy-back is lost. It only makes sense that students think that this process of constantly updating books as a way of keeping textbooks unreasonably expensive. There is a correlation between how upset the students are over the price of their outdated textbooks and how upset their professors become when students try to get away with not purchasing the material for their classes. No one is happy. Furthermore, the less number of students purchase textbooks, the less faculty authors are compensated for their work, and the whole education system turns into a disaster simply because textbooks are always expensive and usually in the process of becoming outdated (so I may have exaggerated for the sake of making a point, but at least we're all on the same page?).
Why exactly did Eric Frank leave Prentice Hall to start Flat World Knowledge as an entirely new and different company? If he was one of the top guys at PH, why didn't he just propose to launch Flat World Knowledge as a branch of the already existing, already successful company? The answer is simple: the "dead-tree" traditional publishing world is too fixed in it's system to revamp any of itself in order to even consider the idea of free textbooks provided over the web.
Not only does Flat World Knowledge license the books and send it through editing and peer review, and give all this work away at no cost online, it also provides study guides/aids and services (at some fee, but can anyone really complain about that at this point?). However, here's where all this of relates to our FSEM: Eric Frank and partner Jeff Shelstad are designing Flat World Knowledge as an open source software publisher. "In addition, teachers could edit, delete, and remix textbooks so that the books precisely match the teacher's approach to a course." I can't help but admire the ingenuity of Frank and Shelstad's idea here. This is an actual application of Matt Mason's "Pirate's Dilemma" without.. any dilemma, and it's totally respectable and completely practical.
Frank and Shelstad hope that Flat World Knowledge will serve to satisfy every level of the educational heirarchy. Professors have immediate access and a great degree of control over the material they want to cover in their classes, students pay less to learn the same material, and revenues for faculty authors increase.
As a new company with an unheard of innovative mission statement, Flat World Knowledge is undoubtedly going to run into a lot of problems. Current online textbooks are thought to be "expensive and impractical for a large portion of the student population", so to convince everyone that Flat World Knowledge will be otherwise is one task Frank and Shelstad will need to overcome. They'll also have to persuade authors the benefits of providing their work for free online (if I were an author, I would not buy into the idea even with all this knowledge..). Flat World Knowledge's main pitch is that they're all about the authors, rather than the brand name.
All I can say is: Good luck, guys. I hope Mary Washington starts using this website.. sometime in the next 2 months.. ugh.

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