17 April 2008

Open Textbooks - An Idea Whose Time has Come?

Well, there's this call for affordable textbooks, including open textbooks:

One thousand professors from over 300 colleges in all 50 states released a statement today declaring their preference for high-quality, affordable textbooks, including open textbooks, over expensive commercial textbooks.

Open textbooks are complete, reviewed textbooks written by academics that can be used online at no cost and printed for a small cost. What sets them apart from conventional textbooks is their open license, which allows instructors and students flexibility to use, customize and print the textbook. Open textbooks are already used at some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions - including Harvard, Caltech and Yale - and the nation’s largest institutions - including the California community colleges and the Arizona State University system.

And then, as if on cue, we have a company, Flat World Knowledge, offering open textbooks:

Our books might feel like your current book – for a minute. They are written by leading experts, and are peer- reviewed, edited, and highly developed. They are supported by test banks, .ppt notes, instructor manuals, print desk copies, and knowledgeable service representatives. There the similarity ends.

Instead of $100 plus, our books are FREE online. We don't even require registration! Students just enter the URL they're given by their instructor and start reading. It's that easy. No tricks. No popup ads. No "a premium subscription is needed for that". In fact, our free books go beyond what standard print editions provide with integrated audio, video, and interactive features, powerful search capabilities, and more.

What's particularly interesting for me is the business model behind the open textbooks:

Our business model eliminates the catch. We're giving away great textbooks and making them open because it solves real problems for students and instructors. In so doing, we are creating a large market for our product. We then turn around and sell things of value to that large market – more convenient ways to consume our free book (print, audio, PDF) and efficient ways to study (study aids). Sure, we’ll make less money per student than the big guys. But that’s okay. We’ll be selling to a lot more of them, and we’ll be doing it for a lot less money (thanks to technology like web-hosted services, XML, print-on-demand, and more).

Which is, of course, the "classic" approach - well, at least around here - for free content: making money *around* the free stuff. Let's hope it works - we could all do with more quality open textbooks.

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