A recent ELI Web Seminar detailed the efforts of the State of Ohio to provide affordable textbook options to students in higher education. The Presentation began with an introduction to the issues facing Ohio by Darlene McCoy, Associate Vice-Chancellor of The Ohio Board of Regents and Stephen R. Acker, Research Director of The Ohio Digital Bookshelf Project.
Due to the recent severe recession, Ohio has faced a significant increase in college attendance. Many of these new students have elected to pursue a lower-cost option to their education, attending regional campuses and community colleges. Many then transfer their credits to a main campus. New learning materials and textbooks constitute about 31% of the cost of a college education in Ohio. Use of used materials and texts lowers the cost to 15%. Ohio officials wanted to pursue even greater savings for their students. They initiated a pilot program (1000 students) with Flat World Knowledge, an open source textbook publisher. Information about the pilot can be found here.
The bulk of the web seminar was given by Eric Frank, founder and president of Flat World Knowledge. He noted the value gap for students – students are increasingly financially constrained but textbook prices keep increasing. His company’s model is to make high-quality texts available for free and make money by selling extras. This involves getting top authors and having the texts professionally developed, with peer review, supplements, etc. Flat World texts are published under the Creative Commons License. They provide a tech platform to allow customization of texts. Faculty can reuse, revise, remix and redistribute texts. Customizations include using only selected chapters, rearranging content via a drag-and-drop interface, and the ability to edit and delete sections. Instructors can load new material and can insert media (YouTube videos, hyperlinks, etc.). A common design is applied to the revised text, including edits and inserts, once the faculty member pushes the Publish button. Publishing rebuilds the book, including table of contents, indexing, pagination, etc.
Students can access the book in multiple formats. They can read the textbook for free over the web. They can also pay to access other formats such as a softcover print version, high-resolution PDF, low-resolution PDF (for self-printing), mobile reader (epub, mobi for the iPad or Kindle), audio book (mp3), or accessible versions (Daisy, Digital Braille). Students can also purchase study aids. According to a press release issued by Flat World, “The digital files are non-expiring and [are] not digital rights management (DRM) copy-protected, allowing students to transfer the content from device to device. Students who prefer a printed book will have the option to purchase a low-cost softcover copy….1,600 professors at over 900 colleges worldwide…have used Flat World open textbooks.” According to Frank, of the 115,000 students who use or have used their texts, 44% read the books online for free. He maintains that the average student saves about $80 per course using Flat World.
Faculty can access an original text – the author’s version – or can search and use texts edited or enhanced by other professors. Shared notation capability does not currently exist but is on the development roadmap. One faculty member who teaches an MBA course said that her students saved an average of more than $150 per semester using Flat World e-texts, and the students gave the experience an average satisfaction rating of 8.5 out of 10.
The Ohio Board of Regents purchased licenses in bulk from Flat World, but the company also offers a fee-based model, where the school collects the cost of the service as part of student fees. The Ohio Digital Bookshelf project mandates that participating faculty and students engage in research projects to judge the effectiveness of e-texts in enhancing learning outcomes. It would be worthwhile to check their site occasionally for updates. You should also check out the Flat World Knowledge site for more information.
From my point of view, open source e-texts are an interesting option. There have been a number of postings on this blog concerning the issues surrounding e-texts in general, and I encourage you to use the search field and look for “e-text, etext” or “textbook” to see some of the entries. Dana Blankenhorn discusses some of the problems and opportunities associated with open source textbooks. One upside is a diluting of the political processes that often drive textbook selection. Some large states push the textbook market toward texts that favor particular viewpoints on sensitive issues. The size of their market means that a large state sets the agenda not just for their state but for others nationwide. Open source texts would help to mitigate this by lessening state control.
A downside, according to Blankenhorn, is that the lack of centralized authority can cause the authority of open source e-texts to be questioned. Flat World texts are peer reviewed and they seem to only use respected authors who are authorities in their field, so the original texts should be beyond reproach, but the question of authority might remain for highly customized texts. Faculty should exercise caution when pondering whether or not to use highly edited e-texts.
If you are a faculty member, how many times have you liked a text but thought that a particular chapter or idea was mishandled, and if only you could change that one section it would be so much better? Well, with Flat World texts, you can! Might be something worth looking into!