Monday, November 12, 2012

Flat World Remains the Strongest Option for Textbook Affordability in U.S. Higher Education

Flat World Knowledge Shifts from Free Model

Two weeks ago, Flat World Knowledge announced that it would discontinue offering free versions of its textbooks as of January 1. This strategy shift, according to CEO Jeff Shelstadt, is being driven by a need to increase revenue and to manage the the company's existing capital prudently. In short, the company needs to increase its per-student revenue in order to continue expanding and marketing its catalog.

In retrospect, the shift away from free e-textbooks was likely inevitable. Indeed, it is easy to argue that Flat World's mission was always a tenuous balance between commercial goals -- affordability, quality and flexibility -- and a vision for open content -- free and open. For the first years of its corporate life, Flat World managed to strike a peace between these oft conflicting paths. In the end, however, the company had to narrow its mission and focus on a strategy that would ensure its survival and growth.

Naturally, Flat World's announcement has elicited a mixture of "I told you so" comments as well as criticism from the open content crowd. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, used the announcement as a chance to underpin the AAP's defense of the high cost of traditional textbooks. "Producing top-quality textbooks that include all of the technologies demanded today is an incredibly costly, sophisticated process, and it appears that Flat World's business model was not sustainable."

On the open content side, Stephen Downes' post reflects the justified concern of the academic community when it comes to the long-term commitments of commercial entities to free and open offerings. Historically, the best intentions of companies to maintain a free product option are inevitably overruled by investors and/or survival instincts. I have experienced this all-too-common reality as both consumer and entrepreneur, and it is equally distasteful on both ends.

Free Is Good but Still Not Entirely Viable in Higher Education

What has been lost in the media reaction to the Flat World announcement is the fact that, while hyped and promoted, free textbooks and open content in general still face an uphill climb in Higher Education. Indeed, much of the dismay about Flat World's decision is related, I believe, to the fact that many had seen the company as the best hope for a free and open solution that could actually offer a meaningful alternative to commercial textbooks.

Back in May, I wrote a post in which I listed a number of obstacles to the widespread adoption of open content (including textbooks). In that article, I argued that open textbooks and other open content are only valuable if they are/can be adopted widely across Higher Education. To date, the primary barriers to such adoption have been:

  • Difficulty of discovery
  • Difficulty of use and lack of differentiated learning experiences
  • Lack of effective marketing

Earlier this year,  David Wiley pointed out that free and open is good, but price and flexibility alone do not necessarily make these materials competitive in the marketplace.

No one outside the open education movement is impressed by books that are “open.” They don’t even know what it means, let alone care about it. What they’re excited by is a book that offers a better quality to price ratio than whatever they’re currently using.

Wiley goes on to argue:

For too long the OER discourse has suffered from thinking that the pitch line “you can get the same quality for less!” is sufficient. While this claim may still be true today, it will not be true for long. Most OER projects have been so busy doing “as good as” commercial publishers that (1) there is little indigenous innovation in the OER world and (2) as publishers raise the curtain on a new generation of diagnostic and adaptive products, the OER community will be years away from a reasonable response. This failure of foresight will change the OER pitch to “lower quality for less!” unless someone starts paying attention.

Making open content widely discoverable, competitive, and usable for individual courses and institutional curricula is certainly doble, but it will require a stronger vision, more money, better coordination, and time. I applaud the work of the foundations and institutions that have served as pioneers in the OER movement but, to date, open remains a viable option only for the individual choice (IC) market (meaning it is not yet a significant factor for departmental or institutional adoptions), which counts for less than 25% of total textbook sales.

Flat World Remains the Strongest Option  for Textbook Affordability in the U.S. 

Which brings me back to Flat World. Many saw Flat World as a vehicle for bringing to market a free and open model that could actually compete with commercial publishers. Flat World textbooks are certainly as good as other publishers'  products, the custom publishing options are superior in some ways, and the company offers ancillary study materials that are absent in other open textbook offerings. 

Of course, it's important to remember that the product components that have elevated Flat World into a broader market segment  -- ancillary study materials and format distribution options -- have never been free. These options have always been offered for a price. Indeed, it is with these "extras," and a staff that can market its products successfully at the departmental adoption level, that Flat World has made noticeable inroads into the traditional textbook world with its more affordable alternatives.

And this, for me, is the point. While free and open may eventually reach a level of product sophistication that leads to significant departmental and institutional adoption in the U.S., it is not there yet. In all honesty, free and open is probably at least 3-5 years from reaching such a milestone. 

Meanwhile the affordability of learning materials is still the primary issue for many students and we need companies like Flat World that can provide competitive product alternatives to traditional textbook publishers today. Specifically, this means providing learning products that feature ancillary study materials, instructor materials, custom publishing options, mobile access, integration into LMS platforms, and learning analytics. It also means sales and marketing teams, customer support, and a broad catalog of content.

Until free and open content reaches competitive maturity, we need companies like Flat World that are willing to develop and provide all of the above items at an affordable price today -- not the $104 retail price of an average new print textbook but at prices ranging from $20-$40. Such an offering is not only affordable but has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.

All of these components will certainly come with costs, to be sure, but that resulting product price can be an affordable one. So, while I admire Flat World for wanting to offer free and open content, I believe that the most important role the company can play in today's Higher Education landscape is that of a leader in affordable and scalable learning materials. It may not be as glamorous as free and open, and it may not be as lucrative as the current commercial textbook model, but it is what students desperately need and what departments and institutions will adopt. And, with those adoptions, the amount of money students pay for learning materials will fall dramatically.

1 comment:

  1. Insightful post Rob, thank you. Collusion and coercive monopolies are as old as we are and the education industry no doubt will discourage free market economics as long as they can. Why wouldn't they, it's good business. Last term my economics textbook cost me $ 220.00. Where I was studying at the time, this was the same costs as my months rent. You tell me.

    Ron Lee
    How To Write an eBook