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An Interview with Jeff Shelstad, CEO and Founder, Flat World Knowledge

Are you currently using open education resources in your online courses? What about digital textbooks? Flat World Knowledge, billed on the company’s website as “the world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks” is gaining popularity as an alternative to traditional textbooks. It’s a company on a mission to not only lower costs, but also increase access to materials and personalized learning options for students and instructors.

Flat World Knowledge publishes authors’ works under the family of Creative Commons open licenses, instead of standard “all rights reserved” copyrights, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to access the materials online for free. Educators are also able to change and reuse the content in their courses, within certain rules, for free. They can then share the new version they create with others if they attribute the author, use the same license, and don’t use it for commercial purposes. The Flat World Knowledge catalog includes free online access to textbooks, as well as purchase options for additional features and downloadable formats.

Jeff Shelstad, the CEO and Founder of Flat World Knowledge, was kind enough to answer my questions about this new approach to textbook publishing and its potential impact on online learning.

How is the Flat World Knowledge publishing model different from other open and online textbook initiatives (Rice University’s Connexions and Open Stax College, Saylor Foundation’s Open Textbook Challenge) – especially from the perspective of the student and instructor?

One important difference is that Flat World Knowledge is a commercial publisher. Our business model is designed to be competitive with the large traditional higher education publishers. Most of the open initiatives are non-profit organizations that serve as aggregators or repositories of open textbooks. Flat World’s publishing model combines the best practices of traditional publishing with the advantages of open content.

We do share a common commitment to solving textbook affordability, and making quality course materials affordable and accessible to students. We agree the old publishing model doesn’t work in a digital-first world. There must be viable alternatives to students paying $1,200 or more a year for textbooks. How we get there is what sets Flat World Knowledge apart.

For instructors: We provide a catalog of author-driven, peer-reviewed textbooks for their courses, with all the supplements they’ve come to expect from publishers. We make it easy for faculty to find and adopt our books right from our website, and we support them through our sales, marketing, and customer service teams.

One of the biggest advantages of our model is the fact that instructors are in control of their textbooks. That’s a new experience. An openly-licensed textbook is incredibly flexible. Instructors can pull it apart, and break it up into chapters and sections that can be reassembled and reused, which is ideal for online programs.

For students: Our model means big savings on college costs and unlimited access to print and digital course materials so they can read how, when, and where they want. This includes a free online reader, too.

From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge facing higher education right now as it relates to online delivery?

One of the biggest challenges for everyone involved in higher education is successfully managing the pace of change. Most of the conversations we’re having with college leaders are about how quickly they can implement digital technology and new business models that can reduce costs and help them attract a diverse community of learners. Retention and improving learning outcomes are also huge challenges. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is providing students with the knowledge and skills they need to compete for the best jobs. An educated workforce is key to U.S. competitiveness.

How do Flat World Knowledge products and services support students in online programs, as well as faculty and administrators?

Learners: Students are among our biggest advocates because they know we’re on their side. Many are juggling school, work, and family responsibilities and need low-cost, portable options to achieve their educational goals. We provide that. We’re device independent, so students can access our books and study aids online anytime, or download our content to their computer, laptop, tablet, e-reader or smartphone for as long as they like. Printed books can also be ordered.

We know that students in online courses have a strong preference for digital materials. In a survey we conducted this spring of about 1700 of our student users, 45% of those enrolled in an online degree program preferred digital textbooks compared to 29% in traditional degree programs.

Institutions: We’re working with some of the largest and most innovative online learning programs and institutions, both through our traditional adoption model and our seat-license model. Faculty and administrators at Southern New Hampshire University, Rio Salado College, and the University of Maryland University College are examples of the traditional approach. In these cases, the school decides to use a Flat World title and the students choose how to read our book, with a full range of options.

Western Governors University is one of the early partners to license our content at the institutional level. The textbook seat-license model is similar to how schools buy software and Learning Management Systems (LMS). It’s a very cost-effective, efficient way for institutions to provide 100% of students enrolled in a course access to their textbook on the first day of class, in a variety of digital formats.

What is the process for textbook creation? Who is involved and what are the benefits to an online instructor who might be interested in being involved?

Our content team begins the process by signing a high-performing teacher, academic author, or researcher, who wants to share new ideas for a course we want to publish for. Product managers then carefully guide the book from the initial concept through to the final product, which typically takes about 15 to 18 months. We use an industry-tested product development process that includes intensive peer review to ensure the textbook meets the highest quality and academic standards.

Another way for instructors to be involved is to adopt one of our books for their course! Once they do, they can use the book as-is, or change it with our Make it Your Own (MIYO) personalization platform. For example, MIYO can be useful for faculty teaching short-term courses. If it’s a four- or eight-week course, they can condense a 400-page textbook into 200 pages by deleting chapters and sections they don’t cover, and adding their own examples and notes.

What enhancements or improvements are on the horizon for Flat World Knowledge?

As a digital-first publisher, we’re always exploring new ways to take greater advantage of the power of the Internet. One area we’re excited about is building communities around our content, and integrating social media platforms so students and instructors can talk to each other and share ideas.

On the product side, we recently launched Study Pass ($19.95), which adds features like highlighting, note taking, quizzes, and flash cards to our online book reader. Students will soon be able to share their notes with each other. Flat World is all about letting learners choose what works best for them.

A new chapter!

This approach to open course materials may have a positive impact on retention and achievement of learning outcomes. There’s also an element of flexibility that should appeal to instructors and students alike. Students interested in finding out more about Flat World’s digital text formats can visit the students’ page. Instructors interested in becoming involved in a new textbook can visit the authors’ page. You can also follow Flat World on Facebook and Twitter.

Have you used open textbooks in your online courses? Tell us more about your experiences and recommend your favorite resources for others.