Flat World Knowledge and U.S. Gov’t on Open Access Course Materials

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The sand is really starting to shift under the traditional textbook providers as the open course content movement shows signs of, well, movement. Already this year there are two events that point to shifts in how instructors and students can shortcut the complex ecosystem of textbooks as we know it today. First, Flat World Knowledge -- a provider of open access course materials -- launched earlier this year. Second, new legislation has been proposed in the U.S. Congress to mandate that some agencies use their funding to produce open access course materials.

Flat World Knowledge Launches

Flat World Knowledge launched earlier this year, and it brings an entrepreneurial feel to the staid subject of textbooks. Billed as "the world's first publisher of open-source college textbooks," their website has a scrappy, web2.0 start-up feel to it. It should probably come as no surprise, then, that they are a web2.0 start-up -- they recently received $8 million in venture capital funding. To faculty and staff in higher education, Flat World Knowledge describes themselves this way:

We preserve the best of the old – textbooks by leading experts.

Then we flip it on its head.

Our books cost $0 online.  We provide paperbacks, audio books, and self-print versions for under $30.  Our books are open for you to edit for your class.  Our new editions are on your terms.  We publish them - you decide if and when to use them.

They offer free versions of their textbooks online then charge for various derivatives and additions. Instructors can modify the textbook -- rearranging chapters, add or delete chunks of text, and (coming soon according to the site) be able to add materials based on a database of what is available at Flat World Knowledge. (One has to register on the site to do this, but you can watch a video tutorial to get an idea about how it works.) Students get flexibility, too; one scenario from their website is:

Kayo doesn't read books online. She orders the black and white softcover for about $29 bucks. It shows up in a few days. Too bland for her friend Sam - he orders the color edition for $59. Not Sharon. She commutes everyday, so nothing but the audio book on her iPod will do. Then there's Chaz. He's indecisive. He decides, well, not to decide. He'll order the self-print .pdf chapters when he needs them for $1.99 per chapter. Cool. And don't forget Tessa. She never has enough time. She'll cut to the chase with our mp3 study guides, mobile flash cards, and online practice quizzes with feedback. That's convenient. That's choices. That's Flat World Knowledge.

Right now their catalog is focused heavily on business topics, but they are looking to expand beyond it. (Into sociology, geographic information systems, and genetics according to their latest newsletter.) Here are the course materials available now and what they have in the pipeline.

Title Author(s) Pub Date Relevant Course(s)
Exploring Business Collins, Karen Feb-09 Introduction to Business
Fundamentals of Income Tax Theory and Practice Kiefer, Dieter Mar-09 Federal Taxation; Federal and State Taxation
Introduction to Economic Analysis McAfee, R. Preston; Lewis, Tracy R. Mar-09 Intermediate Microeconomics, Managerial Economics
Organizational Behavior Bauer, Talya; Erdogan, Berrin Mar-09 Organizational Behavior
Principles of Management Carpenter, Mason; Bauer, Talya; Erdogan, Berrin Mar-09 Principles of Management
Launch! Advertising and Promotion in Real Time Solomon, Michael; Duke Cornell, Lisa; Nizan, Amit Mar-09 Advertising and Promotion
Principles of Macroeconomics Rittenberg, Libby; Tregarthen, Timothy Apr-09 Principles of Macroeconomics
Money and Banking Wright, Robert E.; Quadrini, Vincenzo Apr-09 Financial Markets and Institutions, Money and Banking
Principles of Microeconomics Rittenberg, Libby; Tregarthen, Timothy Apr-09 Principles of Microeconomics
Risk Management for Enterprises and Individuals Baranoff, Etti; Brockett, Patrick Lee; Kahane, Yehuda Apr-09 Insurance, Risk Management
Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed Short, Jeremy; Bauer, Talya; Ketchen, Dave; Simon, Len Apr-09 Organizational Behavior, Principles of Management
Principles of Economics Rittenberg, Libby; Tregarthen, Ti May-09 Principles of Economics
Financial Accounting Hoyle, Joe Ben; Skender, C. J. Oct-09 Financial Accounting
Basics of Oral Business Communication McLean, Scott Oct-09 Oral Business Communication
Basics of Written Business Communication McLean, Scott Oct-09 Written Business Communication
Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology Gallaugher, John Oct-09 Management Information Systems
Principles of Marketing Tanner, Jeff; Raymond, Mary Anne; Schuster, Camille Oct-09 Principles of Marketing
Creative Destruction: The Economics of E-Commerce and the Internet Koch, James Feb-10 Electronic Commerce
Personal Finance Siegel, Rachel Feb-10 Personal Finance
Project Management in a Virtual World Darnall, Russell; Preston, John M. Feb-10 Project Management
Sustainability, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Larson, Andrea Feb-10 Entrepreneurship, Sustainability
Franchising: A Graphic Novel Combs, Jim; Ketchen, Dave; Short, Jeremy; Simon, Len May-10 Franchising, Small Business Mgmt

H.R. 1464 -- The LOW COST Act

The title of this bill is cleverly named -- the Learning Opportunities With Creation of Open Source Textbooks (LOW COST) Act. Let's set aside my twitching in response to this use of phrase "open source" in this context -- the correct form of "open" is probably "open access" -- but that would ruin the acronym. (I had the same reaction to how the Flat World Knowledge folks used this phrase, too, so I should probably get over it.) The bill would mandate federal agencies that spend more than $10 million on science education to spend 2% of their budget on the development of related, college-level educational resources.


  1. In General- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the head of each agency that expends more than $10,000,000 in a fiscal year on scientific education and outreach shall use at least 2 percent of such funds for the collaboration on the development and implementation of open source materials as an educational outreach effort in accordance with subsection (b).
  2. Requirements- The head of each agency described in subsection (a) shall, under the joint guidance of the Director of the National Science Foundation and the Secretary of Energy, collaborate with the heads of any of the agencies described in such subsection or any federally supported laboratory or university-based research program to develop, implement, and establish procedures for checking the veracity, accuracy, and educational effectiveness of open source materials that--
    1. contain, at minimum, a comprehensive set of textbooks or other educational materials covering topics in college-level physics, chemistry, or math;
    2. are posted on the Federal Open Source Material Website;
    3. are updated prior to each academic year with the latest research and information on the topics covered in the textbooks or other educational materials available on the Federal Open Source Material Website; and
    4. are free of copyright violations.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Bill Foster of Illinois, and it is currently in the House committees on Education and Labor as well as Science and Technology. There are no co-sponsors to the bill, which I don't think is a good sign, so I'm not expecting it to go far. Still, the sentiment is nice, so it is one to watch.

I've also heard through the grapevine that there is a bill being worked up to be proposed in the U.S. Senate that would set aside money for the development of open access course materials. So, at the very least, the notion of open access course materials seems to be catching on from top-down funders.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/printed-book/1639 to http://web.archive.org/web/20090327141711/http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/printed-book/1639 on November 13th, 2012.