Eric Frank

CC Talks With: Flat World Knowledge’s Eric Frank: Open Education and Policy

Timothy Vollmer, November 4th, 2010

At the beginning of this year we announced a revised approach to our education plans, focusing our activities to support of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. In order to do so we have worked hard to increase the amount of information available on our own site – in addition to an Education landing page and the OER portal explaining Creative Commons’ role as legal and technical infrastructure supporting OER, we have been conducting a series of interviews to help clarify some of the challenges and opportunities of OER in today’s education landscape.

One major venue for the advancement of OER is through the development and support of businesses that levage openly licensed content in support of education. Eric Frank is Founder and President of Flat World Knowledge, a commercial publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks. We spoke with Eric about faculty perceptions of open textbooks, customization enabled by open licensing, and the future of “free online and affordable offline” business models.


Eric Frank by Flat World Knowledge / CC BY

Why did you start Flat World Knowledge and how did you decide to approach this business using open content?

My co-founder Jeff Shelstad and I come out of a long history in textbook publishing. We left a major textbook publisher because of what we perceived as exceedingly-high dissatisfaction levels among the primary constituents in that market—students, faculty and authors. These groups were scratching their heads wondering if the print-based business model was going to be able to serve them going forward. When we began thinking about how to build a new business model, we didn’t actually know that much about open educational resources and open licensing. We started to bake a business model based on bringing prices down and increasing access for students; giving faculty more control over the teaching and learning experience; and providing a healthier and more sustainable income stream for authors. And then we started to meet people in the open community. We spoke to Open Education scholar and advocate David Wiley (and Flat World’s Chief Openness Officer) who said, “It’s funny, you sound a lot like me, except we use different words.” This pushed us a little bit further. Ultimately, through a very pragmatic approach to solving real problems that customers were facing, we arrived at this open textbook model.

The cost of textbooks is something that’s very tangible to students. Flat World Knowledge recently released information that 800 colleges will utilize Flat World open textbooks this fall semester, saving 150,000 students $12 million in textbook expenses. And, the Student PIRGs’ recent report A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability found that adopting open textbooks could reduce textbook costs by 80%–to $184 per year, compared to the average of $900. Beyond the important outreach on cost savings, what are the primary questions you hear from faculty and students around “open”?

For the most part, when the average faculty member hears “open textbook,” it means nothing to them. In some cases, it has a positive connotation, and in other cases, it’s negative. When it’s negative, the primarily concern is one of basic quality and sustainability. Faculty question the entities making these open textbooks, and wonder whether the textbooks could be worth their salt if they’re available for free under an open license. And of course, they confuse ‘free’ and ‘open’ all the time. “If it’s free,” educators say, “It can’t be good. What author would ever do that?” Sometimes we see the opposite problem, such as when people know a little something about the publishing ecosystem and say, “It’s too good to be true.”

Through our marketing programs, we spend a lot of time educating faculty that we are a professional publisher, and that we focus on well-known scholars and successful textbook authors. We start by talking about what’s not different from the traditional approach: we sign experienced authors to write textbooks for us, and we develop the books by providing editorial resources, peer reviewing, and investment. The end product is a high-quality textbook and teaching package. There’s a real focus and emphasis on quality. What we change is how we distribute, how we price, and how we earn our revenue. We walk faculty through this process and let them know that ‘open’ is just about loosening copyright restrictions so that they can do more with the textbooks. We explain that free access is about getting their students onto a level playing field. We explain that affordable choices is about making sure students get the format and price that works for them. Once faculty understand these things and are reassured that we have a quality process in place, and that we are a real and sustainable enterprise that will be around to support them in the future, then it all starts to come together. We have to overcome either a total void of knowledge, which we prefer, or some other baggage that they carry into the conversation.

Customizability of digital textbooks is a key feature of Flat World Knowledge, enabled by the open license. How do teachers and students use this feature? And, how is Flat World’s approach to remix different than other platforms and services that allow some adaptability of content without actually using open content as the base?

Of course, the license itself carries its own rights and permissions. People are able to do a lot more with open content than they can with all rights reserved materials. We keep building out our technology platform so that it ultimately enables faculty to take full advantage of that open license—to do all the things that educators might want to do to improve the quality of the material for their own purposes. Today, the most popular customization is relatively simple. For example, educators reorganize the table of contents by dragging and dropping textbook chapters into the right order for their class, and delete a few things they don’t cover. This is easy and helps them match the book to their syllabus.

Then you move into exploring other areas. For example, instructors may want to make the textbook more pedagogically aligned with their teaching style. In that case, a teacher might integrate a short case study and a series of questions alongside the textbook content. Teachers may want to make the references and examples more relevant to their students by using the names of local companies. Timeliness is certainly important—something happens in the world and educators want to be able to integrate it into their teaching materials.

Educators have different teaching styles and approaches too. An adopter of one of our economics textbooks swapped out some models for other economic models that he prefers to use. An adopter at the University of New Hampshire added several chapters on sustainability and corporate social responsibility into an introduction to business book. Now, he’s teaching the course through his prism and from his perspective. These are the kinds of things that people want to be able to do. The critical thing for us is to make the platform easy to use so that customizing a book is as effortless as opening up a Word document, making some changes, saving it, and delivering it to students.

Regarding how our approach differs from other platforms and services because we begin with openly-licensed content, at one level, the ability to take something and modify it is largely a technology question. We go further, and allow people to edit text at the word level. You don’t see this sort of framework in other services because most of the time you’re dealing with the all rights reserved mentality. Most authors sign up to write traditional textbooks with the understanding that, “This is my work and you can’t do stuff with it.” I think the first big difference is when the author says, “I want people to be able to do stuff with this.” Having authors enter into a different publishing relationship by using open licenses allows us to go much further with the platform. That said, there’s nothing really stopping another company from doing this with some kind of unique user license.

We see other benefits of open access when we think about outputs. You might be able to go onto a publisher’s site and make modifications to a text, and maybe even integrate something that’s openly-licensed on the Web. But ultimately, it’s going to get subsumed into the all rights reserved framework, and won’t propagate forward, so no one else can change it. And generally, these digital services are expensive and access expires after a few months, so the user no longer can get to the content. Things like digital rights management and charging high prices for print materials are fundamentally business model decisions around dissemination, but they’re important.

I think the other big difference is what can happen away from the Flat World Knowledge site. Somebody could arguably come in and take our content and do something with it somewhere else. We’re not locking it down and saying, “The only thing you can do is work with the content on our site, and only use our technology.” We happen to make it easy to do this sort of thing on the Flat World site, but the open license allows others to use the content away from the original website. This leads to many more options that aren’t possible with content that is all rights reserved or served under a very unique license.

Flat World Knowledge licenses its textbooks under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. What were the considerations in choosing this license? How do you see the role of Creative Commons in open textbook and open education?

One of my pet peeves about this community that we’re a part of is the frequent and sometimes contentious debates over licensing. The principle of enabling a range of licenses recognizes that copyright holders have different objectives for their creations. I have my objectives and you have yours, so we may choose different licenses to reach those objectives. That’s perfectly fine. This is the way the world should be. For us, the choice of a license was very much predicated on building a sustainable commercial model around open. We invest fairly heavily with financial resources, time, and intellectual capital to make these textbooks and related products something that we think can dominate in the marketplace. If we didn’t use the non-commercial condition, in our view, we’d be making all the investment and then someone else could sell the content at a dramatically lower price because they didn’t make the initial and ongoing investment. The non-commercial condition is the piece of the model that enables us to give users far more rights, to provide free points of access, and protect our ability to commercialize the investment we made. The ShareAlike clause ensures that this protection continues forward.

Our decision to use this license also relates to authors. The sustainability and financial success argument starts with the people who have the most value in the market: the authors who create the books. Our discussions with authors always include a financial component. They want to know how we are going to capitalize on this venture. Authors want to do good, but they also want to earn income and be fairly compensated. When we explain our model and how the licensing works, they feel very comfortable.

Last month Hal Plotkin released the paper Free to Learn: An Open Educational Resources Policy Development Guidebook for Community College Governance Officials. That document suggests that community colleges are uniquely positioned to both take advantage of OER opportunities and to become pioneers in teaching through the creative and cost-effective use of OER, including through the adoption of open textbooks. How are Flat World’s approaches different in working with universities as opposed to community colleges? What are the differences in terms of the benefits and challenges to faculty, students, and administration within each institution?

This is a great question, but it’s a little hard to answer, because we must consider another variable—the book itself. Sometimes a book is aimed at a community college course and demographic, and sometimes it’s aimed at a four-year research university. For example, our Exploring Business book has a big community college market, while our Introduction to Economic Analysis title out of Caltech has very much a top-50, Ph.D.-granting institution market. So, this confuses things a little bit. That said, I think it’s fair to say that there is generally a correlation between where the financial pain is greatest (which tends to be at community colleges and state institutions) and where the faculty are closest to that pain (where teaching is their primary emphasis, and they spend more time with students). This is where we see the greatest pull for this solution. There’s less of a pull from wealthier demographics and/or with faculty who spend more time doing research than teaching. While there’s more ideological and intellectual understanding of the value of sharing on the research side, pragmatically, the financial pain tends to be on the community college side.

In the recent First Monday article, A sustainable future for open textbooks: The Flat World Knowledge story, Hilton and Wiley suggest that in testing Flat World’s textbook model (“free online and affordable offline”), nearly 40% of students still purchased a print copy of the textbook. And Nicole Allen mentioned in our interview with her that the research of the Student PIRGs shows that “students are willing to purchase formats they value even in the presence of a free alternative.” So, print materials are not going away overnight, as long as the resources can be tailored in ways that teachers and students want to use them. But, as powerful digital technologies offer so many new ways to interact with educational content, how do you foresee the distant (or near) future in which print-on-demand may no longer be a core part of your business model?

We agree with the findings in those reports that print is going away more slowly than pundits proclaimed it would. We’re totally committed to what I think of as platform agnosticism. We never want to be in a position of having to guess which technologies or trends will win or lose. Part of our solution was to build a very dynamic publishing engine which could take a book—which is really a series of database objects and computer code that gets pulled together—and transform it through computer software programs to a certain file format. Today, one format goes to a print-on-demand vendor to make a physical book; another is an ePub file to be downloaded to an iPad or other mobile device; another is a .mobi file for a Kindle. We can afford to be on the leading edge and make formats available that may have low penetration today. And if they grow faster, we’ll be there with a salable format for those devices that will proliferate.

The most important improvement we can make to learning outcomes across our society right now is access. People sometimes ask me, “Isn’t the textbook itself a dead paradigm?” I tell them no, because billions of dollars per year are spent on textbooks. Right now you could create a really killer learning product, and I could take the one that’s already being used by millions of people and make it much more accessible. Enabling greater access is going to have much bigger short-term impact. Going forward, improvements in learning outcomes beyond access will come from things that aren’t content. They will come from experiences—whether it’s an assessment I take and get immediate feedback to inform a specific learning path, or whether it’s a social learning experience in which I’m dropped into a community of learners with a challenge and we draw upon each other to come up with solutions. Content supports those things, but isn’t as important in some ways as the experience.

Our view of the world is to get into the market where there’s pain today, establish a large base of users, and then keep evolving the product to be an increasingly better learning tool. That will inevitably take the form of integrating more unique services that can’t be copied. That’s the long-term goal for us, and probably critical for any business operating in the digital medium, to be financially successful. Kevin Kelly, the technology writer and founding executive editor of Wired, said it best: “When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.” I believe that.

What does a successful teaching and learning environment implementing the power of open textbooks and OER “look like”? Do you have any lingering thoughts — worries, hopes, and predictions?

I don’t worry too much because if we keep our finger on the pulse of what people want to do, we’ll figure it out. One potential danger is the expense of providing this abundance of integrated tools, formats and options for users. It’s easy to imagine the expense of systems that incorporate things like an assessment engine built on adaptive learning and artificial intelligence to guide users to the best resource, all the while connecting them to other users to foster a richer learning experience. This has the potential to be very expensive, and ratchets up the imperative for players in the open community to help figure it out.

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