Flat World Knowledge to Drop Free Access to Textbooks

Sometimes free costs too much. As of January 1, 2013, Flat World Knowledge, which used to describe itself as the world’s largest publisher of free and open textbooks online, will no longer offer content at no charge.

Cost partly motivated the decision, according to Jeff Shelstad, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “We’ve got to be smart with the limited capital that we have” if the company is to survive 10 years from now, he said.

There’s also “an element of fairness” behind the move, Mr. Shelstad said. Some institutional partners have been paying as much as $20 to $25 per student for access to Flat World content, while other partners pay far less. The goal is to even things out while remaining affordable, according to Mr. Shelstad. “We have anchored ourselves around affordability, and we are still there with this move,” he said.

The company’s model allows instructors to customize textbooks and students to pick different packages of content—textbooks in different formats, related study guides, and so on—depending on what they want. The only thing that will change is that there will be no free option, Mr. Shelstad said. “We’re still a great, affordable solution that gives you control of content,” he added.

Flat World has recently begun to explore the possibilities of so-called MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. This fall, it agreed to provide access to a textbook for a free, introductory course in solid-state chemistry offered by edX, the joint Harvard-MIT online-education venture.

Mr. Shelstad doesn’t expect the lack of free options to hamper the company’s ability to work with edX and other providers of free online education. “I don’t see any reason why we won’t continue to partner with MOOC’s,” Mr. Shelstad said. “I’m not sure this will have much impact on that at all.”

Flat World has talked to some 200 of its institutional members about the change, the chief executive said. “I would say that 190 have more or less said, ‘Not a problem,’” he told The Chronicle. “Of course, we have some who are really committed to the open license.”

Flat World authors, meanwhile, “are almost 100 percent in agreement with this move,” he said.

“Campus Marketplace,” the newsletter of the National Association of College Stores, first reported Flat World’s decision to drop its free option. “A number of our members work with Flat World Knowledge or have its adoptions on their campus, so this will likely be of interest to multiple folks in the industry,” Mark Nelson, the association’s vice president and chief information officer, told the newsletter.

>> What You Need to Know About MOOC’s

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