Are open textbooks gaining momentum in higher ed?

Flat World Knowledge will expand its book offerings this school year.
Flat World Knowledge will expand its book offerings this school year.

Officials from open-license textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge say more than 1,300 instructors at 800 colleges and universities will use 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 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.

Virginia State officials agreed to pay a per-student fee to Flat World so students in eight business classes could have access to online textbooks at no charge. Mirta Martin, the dean of the university’s business school, said in a statement that about half of students don’t buy traditional textbooks “because they can’t afford them, and this causes students to fall behind.”

Institutions covering the costs of low-cost online textbooks—and softcover versions for about $30—could provide an example for colleges hoping to save their students money every semester.

Wholesale textbook prices increased at four times the rate of inflation from 1999 to 2009, according to a study released Aug. 26 by the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The group’s statistics came from Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index data.

Frank said open-license textbooks will be more widely accepted when college faculty members are convinced that open textbook companies don’t print every book submission they receive, but instead apply a rigorous editing process that weeds out unreliable texts.

“I think there is still, in some ways, a big challenge for us to overcome that perception,” Frank said. “When you say open textbook, faculty members … greet that with skepticism, and I think that’s grounded in reality. By nature, the quality of [open textbook] work is going to vary greatly. There are gems in there, but there’s also a lot of subpar material.”

Flat World Knowledge’s lineup of 24 textbooks will grow in the next year, with 50 books “in the pipeline,” Frank said. The company expects to publish open books for the 125 highest-enrollment institutions “in the next few years,” Flat World said in an announcement.

Steven White, a University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, business professor and a proponent of the open-license textbook movement, said the company will build on its momentum when it provides more book options outside of business courses. The company announced this month that it will publish texts for English, algebra, statistics, psychology, and chemistry classes this year.

“Their growth is going to be exponential as they grow their catalog,” said White, who supported federal legislation passed last year that aims to bring down the cost of college books with a series of requirements for publishers and professors.

Support for open-license textbooks, White said, could stem from student demand and instructors’ desire to make tenure. Institutions often consider student evaluations when awarding tenure, and instructors who choose cheap or free open textbooks are more likely to get positive student reviews than educators who choose $250 books for their courses, White said.

“People want to be viewed positively,” he said. “Students vote economically. … The pressure isn’t so much peer to peer than it is from student to professor.”

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