Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FM > A Sustainable Future For Open Textbooks? The Flat World Knowledge Story

A Sustainable Future For Open Textbooks? The Flat World Knowledge Story / First Monday /  v. 15 no. 8 (August 2 2010) / John Levi Hilton III; David A.Wiley


Many college students and their families are concerned about the high costs of textbooks. E–books have been proposed as one potential solution; open source textbooks have also been explored. A company called Flat World Knowledge produces and gives away open source textbooks in a way they believe to be financially sustainable. This article reports an initial study of the financial sustainability of the Flat World Knowledge open source textbook model.


Electronic textbooks are a new and potentially exciting development in the textbook industry. Though electronic texts represent less than 10 percent of existing textbook sales (Butler, 2009), this market is poised to increase dramatically. From the viewpoint of students and faculty, free online textbooks of acceptable quality may be particularly attractive. Data from the FWK beta test suggest that even when free online textbooks are available many students will still purchase printed versions of the books. Results from the beta test also indicate that students are interested in supplementary products such as flashcards.

Although “free” is an alluring adjective, it is not always a good business model (Anderson, 2008). As FWK moves forward it may encounter challenges in getting its textbooks adopted, it may struggle to be profitable if a large number of students choose to utilize only the free resources, and may encounter other, unforeseen problems. Nevertheless, FWK demonstrates a business model for developing and releasing open textbooks that initial data indicate appeals to faculty and students, and that may be financially sustainable.

Should FWK — or any other company — build a sustainable business that includes offering free online textbooks, that success will have important implications for the future of the textbook industry. In the future, it may be that textbooks will not represent a substantial portion of the cost of higher education. It is also possible that free digital textbooks with inexpensive printed versions will become mainstream in primary, secondary, and post–secondary education. If free and open textbooks can be financially sustainable the ripple effect throughout the publishing industry and the education community will be large indeed.

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