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.