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Web 2.0 Finally Takes on Textbooks

Web 2.0 is essentially about a new way to create knowledge in human culture. We are a decade into this revolution of distributed, aggregated, and synthesized wisdom. Still, textbooks, written in the old pre-packaged way are sold by the millions. And, their cost increases each year by three times the cost of living increase. These two factors, new ways to create and keep creating knowledge, and over-the-top prices, have led to the stirrings of a revolution in how students have access to textbooks.

The revolution is not about digitizing existing print textbooks. Publishers charge as much for eBooks as for print books. The revolution, instead, is getting authors to write specifically for a company publishing textbooks online that have a new business model more akin to typical Web 2.0 sites: They include ads on some of the pages of the online book (like BookBoon, http://bookboon.com) or the online version is free but the print version is not (like FlatWorld, http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/). In other words, in these two cases and in many other cases of free online textbooks, the content is free but it is embedded in the market space of Web 2.0 where ordering additional features or responding to ads is a click away. And therefore, revenue is a click away. This model is how business is done today. Now, even textbook publishing may join the new century.

Recognizing this trend, students themselves formed Textbook Revolution (http://textbookrevolution.org/index.php/Main_Page). From this site, students can download free textbooks from places like BookBoon and others. TBR is engaging students to recruit faculty adopters of free online textbooks; it is trying to create a bigger push from students for faculty to use the free textbook option. It is an aggregation and advocacy site aimed at changing the basic business model of textbook publishing. (Image used with permission from Textbook Revolution.)

Bookboon, one of the main sites that TBR depends on, provides free eBooks for students in PDF format. They say "our textbooks are legal and written exclusively for Bookboon. They are financed by a few in-book ads." There is an ad every three pages or so. These eBooks can be printed, a big plus since publishers' eBooks cannot be. Bookboon is run by the Danish company Ventus Publishing ApS.

Another aspect of this revolution goes beyond the new business model and adopts the Web 2.0 model of knowledge building. FlatWorldKnowledge announced earlier this month that "30 US universities and colleges have agreed to offer its online textbook products in trial programs this spring. Teachers of marketing, economics, and other business courses are among those offering the online textbooks that are written by leading academics and authors. The trial is an expansion from a 15-school test in the fall." (http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/). The interesting part is what faculty can do with the online textbook: They can modify it and include those modifications in the next edition. "Students will then get their professor's customized version, whether they use the free online version or purchase print or other options." (PRNewswire: http://sev.prnewswire.com/education/20090204/AQW03004022009-1.html)
 
"Flat World fits my needs for my class by providing content from a first-class author at an affordable price and flexible formats for students," said Dr. Marc Weinberger, Professor of Marketing in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Flat World's business model has the potential to be a truly disruptive entry into the traditional publishing world." (PRNewswire)

The biggest leap into Web 2.0 culture for textbooks, however, is Wikibooks (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Main_Page). Wikibooks is like Wikipedia in that it provides a way to generate the wisdom of crowds around a book that is written in a traditional manner. Here we find the realization of the Xanadu concept, publish first and generate corollary knowledge second. Wikibooks is almost six years old so it already offers a substantial library.

For free supplementary scholarly materials, try Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/). Searches in Google Scholar are sequestered from the thousands of irrelevant sites you'd find with a standard Google search, so you see only sites that are appropriate to a scholarly search. You will find entire academic books, and a broad array of articles, some of which are out of print.

Textbook publishing is deeply entrenched, familiar, and valuable. But the costs have grown beyond the ability of students to buy textbooks. Faculty say "students don't read the assignments" and students say, "I didn't buy the book in the first place."

But, contracts are in place, campus bookstores provide revenue to the institutions, prestige attaches to a publication with a prestigious publisher, enormous editing expertise resides with the publishers, and a multi-billion dollar business doesn't disappear (...oops, in this year, it may). And, reading online, while much easier now with better resolution and students more accustomed to reading online, still lacks some of the benefits of reading a hardcopy book.

Since the monolithic publishing empire is so entrenched and the very tiny new online textbook publishing ventures may take years to catch on, what can be done now?

By using Web 2.0 revenue opportunities, such as the ads in BookBoon or selling extras such as podcast segments from the book or the full color version, pricing for any one student can become flexible: free for some, regular retail for others, or above retail for still others who opt for additional features.

Publishers need to move quickly to the flexible option so all students can afford textbooks and class materials. Too many students are simply not buying textbooks or are going deeper into debt to do so. For their part, faculty need to look at the various options, especially the option to write their own textbook or modify an existing one online. The market for textbook writers is opening and allowing more authors in. This is an opportune time to write your own book. Students need to keep pushing faculty members to adopt free online textbooks instead of unaffordable print versions.

And just think, some textbooks--Wikibooks--will be embellished with the thoughts and experiences and critiques of others. A lost feature from the days of handmade and hand-printed books, marginalia, is back.


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