COLUMBIA — Eric Frank, co-founder of a New York-based open source textbook distributor Flat World Knowledge, describes digital textbooks as act one of the digital textbook movement and open source textbooks as act two.
Open source textbooks, like the ones offered by Flat World Knowledge, can still be professionally written and edited, but they are published under a Creative Commons license that allows faculty to adapt the book to fit their individual needs.
“I think there is a lack of understanding about what open source textbooks are,” said Frank, who co-founded the company in 2007. “It doesn’t mean anything about how the book will be produced or created. They are defined by their legal license.”
Flat World Knowledge's Web site invites users to “customize, remix, tweak and build upon our work non-commercially, so long as you credit our authors and us, and license your new creations under identical terms."
“Faculty can take an existing book by an expert and be able to view it as something they can reorganize to better fit their class,” Frank said. “They can replace examples with more relevant and local examples.”
Flat World Knowledge served about 1,000 students at 28 colleges and universities during spring semester, Frank said. This fall, they expect more than 40,000 student users at about 350 schools.
Four professors in Missouri Western’s School of Business will team up with Flat World Knowledge in the fall to use an open source textbook for the first time in their introduction to business classes.
The decision to switch to digital was made when the college was informed that Flat World Knowledge would offer a free online version of the printed textbook, "Exploring Business," already used in the class.
“Students are spending a lot of money on books that, in their perspective, they don’t use,” said Beverly Payne, general business instructor in Missouri Western's College of Business. "This offers a choice for students."
Rob Boyle, a professor in the St. Louis University School of Business, will also use the "Exploring Business" open source textbook offered by Flat World Knowledge in his business foundations course this fall.
"Beyond wanting to continue with the same text, we were interested in offering students the option to buy the text, buy individual chapters or read it online for free," Boyle said.
Flat World Knowledge digital textbooks are available online for free, but they also provide options to purchase the book in other formats so students can decide what is appropriate for them, Frank said.
While Frank acknowledged the challenge faced by students without home access to a computer or Internet, he said he still thinks printed textbooks cause more inequity.
“I see a bigger inequity when a book is only available in print for over $100,” Frank said. “They may not be able to read the online book every night, but they will be able to buy the printed copy for $30.”
With the decision to switch to digital partially because of the high cost of printed textbooks, Payne said she expects students will respond favorably to the transition. However, she said it may require more responsibility of students to remember to go online and read without the reminder of a printed textbook sitting on their desk.
"I believe there will always be a need for a printed book of some sort, whether you print it yourself," she said. "Learning styles vary."