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Open textbooks gain momentum

One company has doubled its customer base in the past year as textbook prices prove prohibitive for many college students

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Textbook prices increased at four times the rate of inflation from 1999 to 2009.

Officials from open-license textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge say more than 1,300 instructors at 800 colleges and universities are using their books this fall semester— doubling the 400 institutions that used Flat World texts a year ago.

New York-based Flat World Knowledge also announced a partnership with Virginia State University that could prove to be a model for how institutions can provide affordable textbooks for students who often decide not to buy expensive books that can add as much as $1,000 to an annual college bill, according to national estimates.

The proliferation of Flat World’s low-cost online books owes in large part to word of mouth in the halls of academia, said Eric Frank, the company’s founder and president.

One business professor at the University of New Hampshire used a Flat World open text last year, and after he chatted with fellow instructors, Flat World books will be used in five of the school’s courses this fall, Frank said.

“We’re seeing this buildup of momentum where one professor using our [books] turns into three or four or five professors using our books,” he said, adding that three in 10 customers were referred to Flat World products by their peers. “And that’s a very important part” of the open textbook movement, he added.

The open-license book company has seen its number of student users more than triple since last year—from 40,000 students at the end of 2009 to more than 150,000 students nationwide today, according to an Aug. 23 announcement. Flat World started with 1,000 students on 30 college campuses.

Educators have come out in support of open textbooks as Flat World has grown. Officials at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., said retention rates in courses that used open textbooks last year jumped by up to 15 percent.

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