Thursday, December 6, 2012

Open and “Free?”: Flat World Knowledge

Both the Cape Town Declaration (2007) and the UNESCO guidelines for open access indicate that open education should be “free.”  However, the development of these open courses, textbooks, and research still needs to be funded.  Colleges and universities have traditionally relied on student tuition, endowments, government funds, and grants, so for whom is open education free?  Who pays?  As third-party distributors of open materials continue to grow, they are creating their own business models, often focusing on “fair” or “low cost” options.  

Flat World Knowledge

Flat World has been providing free textbooks to students for five years, and on January 1st, there business will shift from “free” to “fair.”  Their hashtag is even #free2fair.  They started enticing professors to create open textbooks by offering 20% royalties on supplemental materials, which also gives professors the incentive to create and assign their own texts with the hope of making money off students buying study guides and printed versions.  The PDF was free for students, the rest was not.  

Flat World Users in NYS

Flat World moving to a system of access and payment levels in 2013.  As they indicate on their website:

Study Pass, $19.95 (Online book, plus study and note-taking features)
All Access Pass, $34.95 (Study Pass, plus a variety of digital formats)
VIP Pass, $49.95 (All Access Pass, plus a print textbook)
Print textbook, $39.95 (black & white)
Every option is still significantly lower than the average textbook cost, even if the student opts for the printed text.  The idea of “free” to “fair,” however, marks a shift in the open education environment.  Does “open” have to mean “free?”  Is reducing the textbook costs per student per year from $1,200 enough?

There are plenty of reviews of the pros and cons of print text vs. eText, including the fact that students would still need to buy a device (iPad, Kindle, laptop) to read an eTextbook.  Flat World’s model allows for the traditional student, who wants a low-cost print version they can thumb through, and an eStudent, who wants a version for their iPad they can read on the subway.  Flat World gives students options, and in some ways this makes it very open.

For more information and great videos about Flat World see The Textbook Guru