Technology Roundtable

The Future of Content is an Open Book

Three open source veterans discuss the implications for open content in higher education.

At Campus Technology 2010 ( this past July in Boston, Josh Baron, director of academic technology and e-learning at Marist College (NY) and chair of the Sakai Foundation’s board of directors, led a panel discussion on the future of open source and open content in higher education with Brad Felix, chief learning officer of open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge, and Michael Feldstein, author of the e-Literate blog on education technology. Here, an edited excerpt of their discussion captures some of the issues panelists examined specifically around open content.

Josh Baron: Open content has a lot of implications and future possibilities for higher education. Let’s begin by looking at a relatively new open content publishing model for textbooks that’s already in place. Brad, could you tell us what your company, Flat World Knowledge, is doing in the textbook marketplace?

Brad Felix: Flat World Knowledge is a textbook publisher, but more specifically it’s an open content textbook publisher and is somewhat unique in the open content realm, in the sense that we are a for-profit company. Still, the chief goal of what we do is to lower the cost of textbooks for students; that’s the primary, number one thing we do.

The company was founded by two guys from Pearson Publishing who were having numerous conversations with each other along the lines of: “We’re sitting here creating these beautiful $150 or $200 textbooks that are being cannibalized by things like the internet, international markets, used book markets, and so forth. And yet our only response to date has been, in effect, to raise prices. This is not a sustainable solution. There has to be a better way to do this.” So, they started Flat World Knowledge with a new model: open content textbook publishing.


e-Literate blog:

Flat World

MIT OpenCourseWare:

The business model is traditional in the sense that everything that we do when we go to publish a textbook is the same as any of the traditional houses: We find great authors. We sign them to a contract. They write the book. We do the editorial work. We do marketing and so on. But the day we publish that book, things go a little differently—well, a lot differently—from the traditional model. We actually give away the book for free online.

Of course this immediately raises the question “Well, how the heck do you make any money?” and in essence the answer is, “We sell formats.” So, let me just give some examples of what we do sell. We sell print versions of the book, print on demand, again for a much different kind of fee structure than traditional publishers. Our black-and-white print book is $30; the color version is about $50 or $60. We sell other formats, mostly digital, like a $20 PDF. And we’ll have e-pubs for mobile formats, plus we may have audio versions of the book. We also sell some study aids, so you can get quizzes and flashcards and executive summaries and so forth. So that is the basic business model.

The biggest question on the table for us, after actively doing this for two-and-a-half years now, has been, “Can you build a sustainable, profitable business on this notion of giving away free products?” So far, all signs point to “Yes, we definitely can.” Of the swath of students who read our books, about 50 percent of them choose to purchase something. And this coming fall we’ll most likely see somewhere in the range of about 80,000 students over about a thousand courses, mostly in the US, but also other places around the world.

Baron: We’ve seen commercial ecosystems before, growing up around open source software: for example, Red Hat providing support to us around the Linux operating system; or rSmart with the Sakai collaboration and learning environment or Kuali administrative system. Now, I’m intrigued by what you describe in terms of a commercial ecosystem growing up specifically around open educational resources.

[Another thing] that really excites me is the ability to remix open content in ways that faculty can customize and annotate it. Brad, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about the challenges the marketplace will need to tackle, given all the remixing of open content.

Felix: One thing to work on with open, remixed content is versioning. Historically, we have struggled with the authoring model that makes the most sense. On one extreme is the person who writes a textbook that gets fully copyrighted and, you know, no one else can really touch that content—it’s a black box and it’s just 100 percent closed. On the opposite extreme is something like Wikipedia where it’s the Wild West, right? So, if you’re an instructor, what you really want is something in the middle: “I don’t want a wiki book. I don’t want a closed textbook either. I want an open textbook and I want to be able to adjust it to my needs—but oh, by the way, when version two comes out, I want the cool stuff from that too. And oh, by the way, another instructor did some great stuff that I might want and I’m going to want to put that in my textbook too.” The tools and capabilities to be able to do all this represent just a ridiculous versioning problem; it’s a multidimensional versioning problem that’s very tough technically to solve. But you should start to see something soon from Flat World Knowledge addressing all that.

Question From Audience: Faculty see the intellectual property that they develop as valuable and critical to their careers. How do you convince them to give it away in an open education model? And what about compensation for faculty?

Baron: When you really look at the financial gain that most of our faculty members make, let’s say, when they publish a textbook, this is the case for the vast majority: They’re getting paid about 25 cents an hour for the work that they do over the time it takes to put that book together. So, even in the traditional model, most faculty are apparently not motivated primarily by financial rewards.

What I think motivates them is scholarship; and they do get credit in terms of scholarship, which helps them get tenure and promotion. And then obviously we can look back to the mission that we’re all involved in, in education, of helping educate the world and sharing knowledge as well—and I think you can achieve these things even better in an open model. So, if you put your content out through MIT’s OpenCourseWare or Flat World Knowledge or other open initiatives, the chance of others using and accessing and benefiting from that material is much greater than if it’s locked up behind some type of private license.

Michael, you’ve been an academic author as well as an independent blogger for a long time. What do you think?

Michael Feldstein: You know, in a prior life, I also used to work as an independent consultant and I was pretty promiscuous in terms of talking to people about what I was thinking about. My wife, more than once, asked me, “Aren’t you afraid they’re going to steal your ideas?” And my answer was always, “No, because they can only steal the stuff I’ve already thought of.”

If you think about the university, it’s been around for millennia. It came into being in the shadow of the Dark Ages when books were being burned and knowledge was being lost. So it is hardwired at a very deep level to think of itself as being about preserving knowledge. It’s the content that we traditionally hold on to, but we live in a very different world right now and the most valuable thing that any teacher can do for any student now is not to teach them any particular knowledge base that is completely perishable and may be devalued.

The reality is also, if the thing that you’re holding on to is currency, inflation is driving the value of that through the floor anyway. What’s harder to devalue is teaching people not content, but skills. To put it in more academic terms, it’s teaching “disciplinarity”—for example, not teaching people history but teaching them how to be historians.

Now, we don’t know very much about how to do that online for free. We’re very bad at it now and we’re probably going to be bad at it for a long time to come. The best way to do it still is to have skilled practitioners work with a cohort of students; that’s always—well, maybe not always, but for the foreseeable future—going to be valuable. And if you look at it that way, and if it’s the performance of teaching the skill that matters, then the content—and this is what’s happened in the music industry—is really just marketing; the thing you actually give away is simply evidence that you’re worth hiring.

Question From Audience: Hasn’t the tenure system always prized “scholarship” more than teaching? If faculty are putting their time and energy into sharing content to improve teaching and learning, are they putting their academic careers at risk? Are institutions rethinking tenure to consider open content publishing as legitimate as traditional publishing?

Baron: Maybe one benchmark is that the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative was a faculty-driven initiative; this was not something that came from the administration. It was the faculty who, when distance education was really beginning to emerge in the 2000s, realized or decided that their mission to disseminate knowledge and educate students fit very well with the concept of putting all their content out there. So then the question is: When will our institutions begin to recognize [open content publishing] in the tenure process?

Feldstein: If you are a believer in open educational resources, and open source in higher ed, and openness in general, the single most important thing you could do as an activist—and I’m speaking here only for myself as an independent blogger—the single most important thing you could do as an activist is to go back to your institution and lobby for changes in your tenure and promotion and hiring systems. Unless people see themselves rewarded in their careers for doing what everybody knows is what we all want to be doing for our students and for the world, it’s going to be really hard.


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