Thursday, July 24, 2008

Open Source Textbooks: Flat World Knowledge Initiative

Podcast: http://www.beyondutopia.net/podcasts/flatworld.mp3

Flat World Knowledge
has embarked on an open textbook initiative that could reshape how students and colleges look at textbooks, ebooks, and instructional materials. They plan to make high-quality business textbooks available for free in ebook format (open, but with limited download capabilities), and for greatly discounted prices in print-on-demand paperback or hardback versions. With this initiative, Flat World Knowledge plans to address some of the current challenges facing students, instructors, and even instructional materials providers.

Flat World Knowledge's approach could revolutionize open courseware by providing the missing link -- full instructional content. Since their inception around ten years ago, open courseware initiatives have prided themselves in providing high-quality course outlines and some content free of charge. However, the courseware does not tend to offer all the course content (textbooks, assessments, practice materials, etc.), which has been a sticking point, and a barrier to growth.

Similarly, free e-books and audiobooks, such as Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page) and LibriVox (http://librivox.org/), have offered free ebooks of books in the public domain. The texts are definitely available, but the problem is that the texts generally do not come with critical apparatus. Further, they are often a bit bulky to read, and printing them can create major headaches. To use them in conjunction with courses is excellent, but it does take work to create the instructional strategy, instructional activities, and more. Attempts to gather together free materials on the Internet (free "textbooks") have not met with widespread acceptance because they are not easily incorporated into a uniform overall instructional strategy.

Flat World Knowledge has an alternative approach to e-books and e-textbooks, which could solve many of the current ebook and textbook problems of access, high cost, and usability. Through Flat World Knowledge's open platform, students will have access to complete textbooks (starting with business textbooks) free of charge, with the option to purchase affordable alternate formats of the content (i.e. print & audio versions of the text) and study aids (podcast study guides, mobile phone flash cards, etc.).

It will be interesting to see if this approach will be viable in the long-run, and if they can prevail despite current practices that, in many ways, exploit textbook publishers. Certainly it is popular these days to blame publishers for the high cost of textbooks, but the truth is that colleges and universities have long been leveraging the content of textbooks to fast-track the creation of high-quality courses that conform to acknowledged standards. University departments have saved millions of dollars by incorporating the content created by the textbooks, which has undergone rigorous (and expensive) review by subject matter experts in scores of peer colleges and universities across the country.

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