Archive for the ‘ Open Source ’ Category

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge MIYO

Today is a very special edition of our eBook review series. Today we get to take a look at the unique publishing tools offered by Flatworld Knowledge. If you missed our review of the student side of Flatworld, you can check it out here.

As I mentioned in the student side review, all Flatworld Knowledge books are under a creative commons license as opposed to an all rights reserved license that most publisher use. For students this may not mean much but for educators it makes all the difference. Essential this ‘open license’ allows teachers to pick up a standard textbook for their course and customize it to fit their needs.

Flatworld calls this feature MIYO (pronounced Meeyo) which stands for Make It Your Own. When a teacher chooses to use Flatworld, they first sign up with an educator account and then find a book for their course. While not every course will have an appropriate textbook, Flatworld boasts a diverse catalog that covers many of the general credit courses most liberal arts college students are required to take.

After locating the appropriate book, teachers can choose to ‘Adopt This Book’ which puts it into the ‘Your Adoptions’ menu. Adopting a book prompts the teacher to enter a variety of data about their course which allows students to easily find their professors specific book later.

The next step is where MIYO comes in. From the ‘My Adoptions’ menu, teachers can pull up their book in a view almost identical to the student view except they have a variety of editing options. Editing is simple and easy and works a lot like editing a word document. Professors can easily delete any chapter or subsection that isn’t relevant with a single click.

Adding chapters or sections is just as easy, even if writing them is not. Professors can use this feature for anything from simply copy/pasting their lecture notes for each chapter in as a sub section, or they can add an entire chapter to cover something the book leaves out.

Maybe adding an entire chapter is  a bit much, but you’d like to adjust the existing chapters. In the editing view, professors can pull up any section as if to read it, then double click the text to begin editing at the sentence level. Say a professor has been teaching an economics course for a few years and has noticed students have a very hard time with a certain concept. Rather than add a new section, they can simply insert their own additional explanation into the text as supplemental material.

After making adjustments to the text, publishing it takes just a couple clicks and it is ready to be viewed by students. A custom link to your text is provided after making an update which can easily be emailed out to a class list. Even making changes mid semester is easy, and students will see the new material instantly in their online versions.

Of course the best part for students and educators is that the online version of ANY book on Flatworld Knowledge is completely free to read. With basically no barrier to entry, Flatworld Knowledge has changed the game for students and faculty alike. Greater customization and versatility for teachers and free books for students make so much sense it’s hard to believe this platform isn’t the norm already, but it will take time to wrestle a foothold in the industry away from traditional textbook publishers that have had a hold on the market for decades.

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge

Here we are with another eBook review, this time for a platform with a rather interesting business model. Today we’re taking a look at Flatworld Knowledge, the self proclaimed “world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks.”

Flatworld Knowledge describes themselves as a “college textbook publishing company on a mission.” What mission is that? Simple, to lower the cost of textbooks for students and allow faculty to control the material they teach and the materials their students are required to purchase. How do they do this? First and most importantly by ditching the traditional ‘All Rights Reserved’ license that most publishers use for a ‘Creative Commons license’ which is an open-license. For faculty this means “unprecedented control over content” and “permission to create a derivative version of any textbook.”
Essentially, faculty have the ability to modify any textbook offered by Flatworld Kowledge to custom fit their purposes. This can involve removing materials that won’t be covered in the course, adding links, videos or entirely new passages. As you can see from this search for “Introductory Chemistry,” there are several different versions the text specific to different professors at different universities.

Many college students well tell you it’s very frustrating when you’re forced to purchase an expensive textbook and in the end the professor only covers a portion of it. In addition to cutting out unused material, this control allows professors to insert their own which is arguably much more valuable. Rather than filling lecture slides with notes, links to external materials and videos or images, professors can wrap all this material up in their assigned text, saving them and their students a lot of time and hassle.

The customization of texts is extremely valuable, but lets save that discussion for another review (stay tuned…). Right now we are focusing on the student experience with Flatworld Knowledge. For starters, signing up is simple and straight forward, and searching the catalog by your professor’s name, school name or course name makes finding your customized text easy. After you’ve located your text you must select what format you’d like to use.

To the delight of students everywhere, the basic digital “Free Pass” version is completely free to view through your browser. Next up is the “Study Pass” which has added features such as highlighting, note taking, interactive study tools such as flash cards and “Study View” which gives you a condensed version of key points, objectives and definitions. The most robust version is the “All Access Pass” which gives you all the features of the “Study Pass” as well as a downloadable PDF version for printing and the true eTextbook version for viewing on your iPad, Kindle, Nook or other eReader of choice.

Even the “All Access Pass” is still very inexpensive when compared even to other eTextbook retailers, let alone traditional printed textbooks. However if you just can’t study without a hard copy of the text to flip through and mark up, you can order a black and white printed and bound copy for a bit more than the “All Access Pass.” Or you can spring for the full fledged color textbook for what you’d expect to pay for a book at your school bookstore. To me it seems a bit counter intuitive to purchase a traditional textbook from an etextbook company that is offering the same material for free, but hey, some people just really need a paper version.

For me, it makes the most sense to just bookmark the free browser based version of each book assigned to you. With such a plethora of mobile devices with on board web browsers, it isn’t difficult for most students to get access to their books anywhere, anytime. Nook and Kindle users are out of luck it would seem, but if you’re packing an iPad or smart phone, your FREE textbook can be with you anytime.

The browser based reading experience is surprisingly pleasant. A sidebar of chapters and subchapters makes navigation easy, images are vivid and diagrams are easy to read. A wider view option allows near full screen viewing. I only see two major downsides to sticking with the free version. First is the lack of study tools such as highlighting, note taking and study guides. So for this you’ll have to make a personal judgement about how useful these tools are for you. The second downside is eye fatigue from prolonged use. This is a large selling point for Nook and Kindle users, and if you have one and are prone to extended studying sessions, it might be worth the $40 or so to get the digital eTextbook version.

While the Flatworld platform and unique business model are a solid foundation, their catalog is still growing. They have a good foundation of texts in different disciplines, but their biggest hurdle is adoption among professors. Being a publisher and a retailer, Flatworld must first publish high quality textbooks, then get professors to adopt them for a course, then have the infrastructure to also distribute the text to students. Competitors like Kno and Inkling need only worry about providing a platform for distributing publishing company texts that have already been adopted at schools across the country. It seems the road for Flatworld is largely up hill, but with a unique and adaptable platform such as this, a little traction can go a long way. If the circumstances are right, and adoption increases, Flatworld Kowledge has the potential to be a game changer in the textbook publishing and retail world.

Free Textbooks – Crowd funding Your Next Idea

Crowd funding is a term in our new social-media-based society and we should become more comfortable with it and the larger tech-lexicon. Similar to “viral” of a few years back, I am hearing “crowdsourcing” more and more. The concept is basic, but it’s pretty cool and far reaching in its implications. In a nutshell: a person has an idea (such as creating a free textbook), that creator registers and posts the idea on a crowdsourcing funding website such as The post describes the textbook project, why the creator is qualified to proceed, and the vision for the funds and execution. People who believe in the project and contribute money are called “backers” and the project only gets the green light if the target funding is met (or exceeded). The fun part is that the creator can market his or her Kickstarter project and page and even add incentives for various levels of support (think NPR or PBS pledge drive but with stuff cooler than a mug or totebag).

Well, that is just what Brendan Myers, a philosophy professor at Heritage College in Quebec, did. Prof. Myers realized that many of his students would show up to class without the required textbook. After asking them why they didn’t have the book, he was often told that they just couldn’t afford it. To help students in his own classes, Myers decided to write his own textbook (Clear and Present Thinking) and he digitized and emailed PDF copies to his students.

The problem in education — no, one of the problems in education — is that just writing a book isn’t enough to get it widespread use across other campuses. It takes money and time and peer reviews and publisher interest, lots of all. That said, Myers’ text was limited to his classes at his university. At this point he used Kickstarter to develop a campaign to raise the money necessary to create a professional version of his book that could be more widely applicable and distributed.

The original goal of the campaign was to raise $5,000. The campaign recently closed raising $16,872 and funded by 707 backers. Five backers each gave more than $250 while 11 each gave between $100 and $249. Pretty amazing if you ask me and unheard of a couple of semesters ago.

With the extra money, Myers will be creating a French-language edition and audiobook edition of the textbook. With any extra money over $15,000, he will be creating a series of dramatic readings from the works of Plato as the works are core curriculum in philosophy courses across the world. Now that’s a project I can get behind.

500 Free Courses, 150 Free Textbooks from Top Universities

The concept of Open Education Resources (OER) is not new by any stretch of the imagination yet most people remain unfamiliar with this free resource, if only because there is no publisher, author, or seller owning and promoting it.

Since OER is mostly produced via grassroots efforts, it is hard to find the best works, review them, and integrate them into the textbook of the future. Making the problem more difficult is the fact that by its nature, OER content is free so not many entrepreneurs are spending time and money to create the tools necessary to make the discovery easier. There’s simply no profit potential (that’s recognized and capitalized upon yet).

So for now, discovery of such resources is done on a small scale, mostly by individuals, small like-minded Web-based communities, and one-off recommendations. To this point, I wanted to share with you the gem that is and its 500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. This collection includes courses in the liberal arts and the sciences. Each courses is an audio and/or video download that you can add straight to your computer or MP3 player.

In addition, OpenCulture has also created a list of 150 Free Textbooks. Similar to the courses, this list goes topic by topic to provide links to free textbooks for many of the basic courses taught at higher-education institutions today. This list isn’t new but it is growing all the time. Keep checking back as they add more content.

So now that you know, why not take some time to learn something new today? It’ll never be cheaper than free.

Why pay again, for information you’ve already paid for?

Currently, government funded research can be very costly to access. Sometimes thousands of dollars a year for access to a single journal. Should the public have to pay for this information that our tax dollars have funded? Should universities have to pay millions of dollars a year to access this information?

A growing number of people don’t think so.

The folks at started a petition on the petition website to support making this taxpayer funded information freely available. If they reach 25,000 signatures before June 19, 2012, then the petition will be placed in the Executive Office of the President for integration into policy. They now have more than 25,000 signatures. They would like to have many many more to have more clout.

It seems like this issue would be a no brainer. However, a small group of publishers currently make very significant profits from this information. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley – own the majority of the world’s more than 20,000 academic journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published.

This is an issue that is both local and global. In England, it’s recently become a hot issue. The latest wave started with a frustrated blogpost by an English mathematician, Tim Gowers. He touched a nerve, and some researchers and scientists are now refusing to do peer reviews or do editorial reviews for the companies that are profiting from this.

The web, and digital media, now allow for information to freely flow like never before.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London, says that scientists need to establish a new structure with publishers that reflects the changes that have occurred because of the web. He says, “for a long time, we’ve been taken for a ride and it’s got ridiculous”. Curry has decided to stop reviewing for Elsevier and has quit as an academic editor on an Elsevier journal.

The issue is not only about cost. Currently, publishers have control over how most of this information gets distributed. Change, however, is in the wind. is an established site where one can freely post and access research and information. In the world of physics, most research appears here, before it goes on to scientific journals.
David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, said, “To be made effective, scholarly information has to be made as widely available as possible. We’ve seen an increasing amount of evidence that shows that, if we move to an open-access world, there are benefits not just to the scientific process itself but also wider economic benefits.”*

*Quotes and reference taken from

California Moves to Create Open Education Resources and Low-Cost Textbooks for Students

As a follow-up to a blog I posted in December , the State of California has just yesterday taken a big step forward in reducing the costs of textbooks. In a vote that was almost unanimous, the California Senate approved two measures aimed to save California college students money when buying textbooks.

The first bill creates the process for California to create an Open Education Resources library targeted at the 50 most-common lower-division college courses. The process seeks to have publishers, nonprofits, and other entities bid to create textbooks and provide them to students free in digital format or in print for $20. Faculty will not be mandated to use the materials.

To facilitate the process and approve materials, a California Open Educational Resource Council comprised of faculty members from each state public college system will be created. A companion bill was also approved to create a state digital library as a repository for the materials created.

Using the Creative Commons licensing platform, faculty members will be able to adopt and customize these core titles for use in their classrooms. This process allows for faculty to update and share resources to make the products better with inexpensive iteration updates.

The program California seeks to create is similar to the program launched in the State of Washington in 2011.

The Textbook Unbound

Over the past two months I have attended a few conferences on the future of education. While I was excited to see the many changes headed our way, one thing bothered me: the burdensome attachment to the textbook. It seems that in education, we can’t get past the notion of the textbook. In its most basic sense, the textbook is a bound product by which a systematic path to education is paved, but isn’t there more in this day and age?

If we want to move forward, we need to look beyond the textbook and instead at the larger concept of course materials. The study of biology is not a biology textbook along with lectures built around the book; it is a set of concepts that are collectively used to demonstrate and explain the basics of life on earth. Why do we need to follow chapters 1-22 in order to master these concepts? We don’t.

The future of education is in front of us, the bound textbook is behind us. Innovative educators need to find a way to determine the concepts they want to teach in class and then find the best resources and methods for doing so, not just going back between text and talk. We know that what is valuable is a multi-pronged approach to education: instruction via a combination of video, lectures, handouts, and classroom activities. So why are we so stuck with following a textbook?

If you know you want to teach the anatomy of a neuron, why not use the video from Khan Acacdemy ? I found more than 2.8 million results when searching for this term “anatomy of a neuron” on Google, including video demos, printouts, Podcasts, study guides, and more. Why are these not considered as valid or important as the printed textbook?

Transitioning to these new techniques will likely be time consuming. These new sources are not academically reviewed like the textbooks used in classrooms today. Embracing (and even creating) the new requires the educator to spend time to personally review the content, choose the applicable parts, and then source and deliver the material. But isn’t this a more personalized experience? Is it too personalized? Surely this is a curriculum issue and we can’t have rogue instructors teaching their own pet ideas, but if there could be some method and review, there is a lot to gain by this less-rigid approach.

We are far from this being a reality but imagine how liberating a textbook-free future. Consider the ease of updates without printing: edition changes would really be nothing more than updates to links and handouts and really good teachers can post their information to share with others.

The Web was created so that people could share information without physical boundaries. Education is precisely the field that should be embracing this and harnessing the power to reach more students and provide them with more information that is more flexible and up to date than a printed text from decades ago.

Interview Series – Rob Reynolds, Ph.D. – Next Is Now

Dr. Rob Reynolds is the Director of Direct Digital, a service of MBS Direct, LLC (a former employer of mine). You can read Rob’s thoughts at his personal blog.

I was first introduced to Rob’s writing with a special report he did called “Digital Textbooks Reaching the Tipping Point in the U.S. Higher Education “.  Expanding on the throughts from this report, Rob authored the book “The Future of Learning Content”  where he explores digital textbooks, open content, Apple and more.

Jeff – Dr. Reynolds, Thank you for your time. I look forward to understanding more about the tipping point for digital textbooks so lets jump right into things. Your research indicates that digital textbook sales will account for about 6% of the market in 2012 and 11% in 2013, to what do you contribute that growth to? Is it more titles being available or more students willing to try the digital format?

Dr. Reynolds – There are a number of trends driving the growth of digital textbooks in Higher Education. The biggest factor is cost. Increasingly, students are looking for lower prices alternatives to new print titles. And, while digital textbooks are not necessarily the cheapest option (used books with some form of guaranteed buyback or the general winner here), digital is a consistently less expensive solution and it is convenient. Another important factor, as you mention, is title availability. Because of issues with rights clearance and a lack of clear market strategy, most large textbook publishers have only recently begun making most of their front list titles available in digital format. Having complete title coverage will certainly hasten the adoption of digital.

Some of the other trends that I discuss in the book include the popularity of tablets and smartphones, a continued increase in online shipping by students, the evolution of e-textbook reader software applications, and the textbook rental market. This last item is actually an important motivation for textbook publishers to make the shift to digital.

Jeff – Many argue that until Digital Books are significantly cheaper than a physical book the market will still push towards print. What do you think is the tipping point in terms of price?

Dr. Reynolds – While cost is a leading factor in consumer behavior around digital textbooks, it is but one of many. We will see the current growth patterns continue for the next several years even with current pricing patterns around print and digital. Now, if the price of digital learning content drops beyond certain thresholds, we will definitely see an uptick int hat growth. And, keep in mind that this price drop may not be (will likely not be) driven by traditional publishers. Low-cost alternative publishers such as Flat World Knowledge, Textbook Media, and Soomo, as well as a growing open textbook catalog, are gaining increasing traction and this sector of the market will grow significantly over the next five years.

Regarding tipping point for price, I think it’s safe to say that $40 will likely become a maximum value for stand-alone textbook products in the future. It is also possible that traditional publishers will adhere to this pricing for many of their core stand-alone textbook products. Of course, their primary interest is in selling fully integrated technology products – e-textbook, assessments, media, adaptive learning programs, and learning outcomes – and redefining a simple textbook as only a part of what instructors and institutions need to be successful. Integrated technology products allow publishers to target the more lucrative enterprise sales market and eliminate both the used and rental markets.

Jeff – You revised your report to show the impact of Apple’s iPad. Is that the game changer that is necessary and will programs such as the iBook publishing suite speed things up even more?

Dr. Reynolds – The iPad is indeed a game changer. This coming fall approximately 22%-25% of all incoming freshmen in 2-year and 4-year institutions will have tablet devices. Most of those will be iPads. Of course, the overall tablet craze will only increase with the release of Google’s low-cost iPad-challenger this summer and Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablets in October.

Regarding the iBooks Author application and other digital publishing platforms such as Inkling Habitat, the ease of production and distribution can only have a positive impact on the growth of digital textbooks. That said, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, writing or constructing textbooks in their current form is a sizable task, even with an intuitive technology platform. Second, and related to the first, I think we will see a pretty dramatic shift towards the disaggregation of textbook content. This will lead us to assign a greater importance to digital authoring tools that facilitate the mashup of disparate content types and sources.

Jeff – Content is still king and even with the growth of Open Education Content the publishers still hold the rights to the content being used in higher education. Is the final battle over content or platform. For our readers content would be the physical content included in a textbook while the platform would be the system used to deliver the digital content such as Chegg Digtial, CourseSmart, Kno, Inkling or Dr. Reynolds platform Direct Digital.

Dr. Reynolds – My experience has been that distribution platforms come and go. I’ve been designing such platforms for reading and learning for more than a decade now and have witnessed this rapid evolution first hand. LMS platforms are changing right before our eyes and digital reading and distribution will continue to evolve as well.

As I discuss in my book, the modern textbook is simply the result of needing a convenient and logical construct for holding collections of learning materials. I don’t think there can be any doubt that this particular construct will also evolve (as will the associated business models). This evolution will champion content, most certainly, but will push publishers and distributors to revenue streams that are driven by services rather than content ownership per se.

Jeff – If you were a student and only had enough money to buy a single electronic device which would you suggest to purchase? An iPad, Android Table, PC, Mac, Kindle or something else? Why?

Dr Reynolds – While I’m not enrolled in a college or university, I am always a student and take online courses all the time. I think the answer depends on what you want to accomplish. If all you really want is a great content consumption device, I think the Kindle Fire is hard to beat. I also can’t wait to see what Google comes up with in the $149-$199 price range. If, however, you are looking for a productivity device, the iPad is hard to beat. It has a better app ecosystem, is more intuitive in its design, and there is a large group of peripheral manufacturers that support the device. I like the concept of the new Galaxy Note smartphone (with its stylus), and think the Windows 8 tablets released this fall will provide great productivity as well.

Jeff – Thank you for your time. I want to share with readers that if they want to read your fully revised report they can find it in Chapter 6 of your book, which they can obtain free here. Reports from past years (2010 and 2011), can be found at here (2010) and here (2011) and respectively. You cover a lot of ground and we only touched on a few small issues. Anything else you would like to add?

Dr Reynolds – I think the most important thing to realize is the rapid change inherent in the textbook industry today and the volatile nature of the overall market. There are some definitive realities we will all be facing over the coming years, but the most certain one is that textbooks as we know them today will have evolved significantly by the end of the current decade. Business models will change and so will some of the major players. Content will continue to matter a great deal but will be more disaggregated and personalized, both for instructors and students.

Free Textbooks for All

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of websites and organizations positioning themselves as student allies dedicated to bringing low-cost or free textbooks. Many of these dot-orgs and dot-coms are relying on open-source content as an equally useful alternative to proprietary and copyrighted materials like textbooks (Correction – Open Source conent are copyrighted martials, they are just published with the intent to be shared more freely). In theory, it makes a ton of sense. After all, the basic concepts of biology, sociology and physics haven’t changed and the base content is centuries old in some cases. However, the publishers have an edge over this open content in the form of PEER REVIEW. Peer review is where members of the academic community come together to review an author’s finds and deem it suitable (or not) for use in an academic setting. It’s a seal of approval, a stamp that the content is accurate and valuable. Without peer review and that endorsement, academic content is nothing more than words on a page.

This brings us to OpenStax College, which announced earlier this month and recently again at the Connexions Conference that they will be releasing free of charge a series of five books that have been developed and peer reviewed by educators (including two Nobel laureates). OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University and is supported by donations from organization such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 20 Million Minds, and the group plans to offer more than 20 titles.

The first five books are College Physics, Intro to Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. Once published, they will be free to download and view via the Web, PDF or EPUB. Given the nature of open-source content, faculty is a big part of the development process as they are encouraged to post corrections, suggest examples, or volunteer as editors.

As with a lot of the open-source content now being shared, it will take a bit of time for these books to work their way into the adoption process, but as they do, it is clear that a peer-reviewed book will have a leg up in credibility and thus in getting more widespread adoption and classroom use.

20MM and Kno Launch Open Source eTextbook

Electronic textbooks and open source content have been hot topics in education recently as students, teachers and administrators get excited over these game changing technologies. Now, thanks to 20 Million Minds and Kno, we are seeing the two meet in a commercially viable model for the first time. The two companies have joined forces to launch the nation’s first web 2.0, open source eTextbook  for college students.

20MM plans to produce open source etextbooks for the top 25 courses taken by undergraduates in the nation, with general statistics being one of the largest of these courses. Looking just at California community colleges, over 120,000 students take general statistics every year, and with an average new book price of over $150, these students collectively spend over $10 million per year on books for this single course.

Now they can turn to Kno, where they can get a free PDF of Collaborative Statistics, 2nd Eddition, written by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, faculty members at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Kno also offers an enhanced version of the text, which allows you to use all the features Kno offers on it’s other titles, for $20 for the semester. “The reason that I am involved in this project is taht I believe this enhanced version goes well beyond that of a flat PDF to increase student learning. WE already have a free textbook. Now I want to improve the learning experience by offering students what I consider a Web 2.0 experience,” said Illowsky.

This kind of partnership between for-profit companies like Kno and non-profits like 20MM may be just what we’ve been waiting for to take open source textbooks to the next level. “This new offerin is designed for college students to improve their learning experience, results and significantly lower the textbook cost,” said Dean Florez, President of 20MM Foundation. “This digitally enhanced etextbook provides a vision of what is now possible for a new generation of open content and authors.”

With such a promising partnership, and 24 more open source etextbooks planned, it’s an exciting time for cash-strapped undergrads everywhere. Florez predicts “massive adoption by faculty by spring 2012,” a lofty goal but whether it catches on this spring or next, there’s no doubt this is a threat for many publishers and a game changer for college students.

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