The Move to Digital: A Conversation with Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge

Move to Digital

This week, I sat down with Eric Frank, the founder and president of Flat World Knowledge. Eric has over 11 years of astounding success in higher education publishing before breaking the mold with Flat World Knowledge. If you haven’t heard about them, its about time you did. They are changing the textbook game, leading the pack in digital open and free college textbooks.

This is the first part of a three-part discussion with Eric, also available below in Podcast form below, about our experience with digital and how it’s rapidly changing the textbook environment.

The biggest points brought up:

  • OPEN SOURCE CONTENT:  “That’s a big debate in the context of 80% of jobs in 2020 are requiring degrees and 40% of people will have them. What barriers can we remove and just the whole question of free content in whatever publishing or information field you are in, what is that about—open systems and open source supplies for more and more things”
  • THE COST OF DIGITAL: “I think people are looking to technology to keep costs down, and I think that it is often over looked in the tech debate but probably one of the greatest reasons tech gets adopted across lots and lots of markets—cause it’s driving costs of things way down.”
  • DIGITAL PLATFORMS: “I actually think of open content being more of the ‘car,’ and the things like Blackboard delivery or Inkling delivery on an iPad as being more of the highway that it is driving on. I’m not sure that they are mutually exclusive.”
  • WHERE CHANGE WILL HAPPEN: “If the question is ‘where digital will be implemented faster,’ it probably will be higher ed.”

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Jeff Cohen, The Textbook Guru: Just to give you a quick background on myself: I’ve been in the textbook business for about seven years. I used to run corporate advertisement for MBS textbook exchange. I was their director of advertising and promotions over the wholesale and direct division. I was also the general manager for textbooks.com and I launched that site for MBS and ran that site for a period of time. I left there and went to the affiliate side of the business—the price comparison side—working for Campus Books for the last four years and started my blog “The Textbook Guru” back in January after noticing I spend a lot of time talking to a lot of different people in the industry, sharing a lot of the same information with the same people and just thought it was a great avenue to share my thoughts with a wider audience than just the people I have time to speak with on the telephone.
Eric Frank, Flat World Knowledge: Yeah, that’s great. How are you finding blogging in general?
JC: It takes up a lot more time than I thought. The two biggest feedbacks I get are: what’s happening with the rental industry? And where is digital going? Those are the two biggest things I get. The third thing I hear the most is: the people that read my blog enjoy it because I have quality posts. I’m not just putting garbage up.
EF: Exactly—which is the time consuming thing. But it’s probably the only thing that makes it worth it.
JC: I like to have an opinion, but I like to try and back my opinion with some of kind of fact. Although I have written a couple of pieces where I just flat out said “I have nothing to back this except for my gut—but this is what I feel.”
EF: Right—and that’s your prerogative as a blogger, right?
JC: Absolutely! And I do. I remember having a conversation with Jim Nye. Do you know Jim Nye?
EF: I do.
JC: Everybody knows Jim Nye. I was having a conversation with Jim [Nye] shortly after I started the blog and he says “Cohen! You’ve been in this industry for seven years and you’re a guru—well then what the hell am I? I’ve been doing this for 30 years!” And I said “You’re the Dali Lama!” and he said, “Alright, great” And then I said, “The Dali Lama is welcome to share his wisdom on my blog anytime he wishes.”
EF: That’s great. What he really was, was the unbranded guru.
JC: Exactly. Ultimately my goal is not for “Jeff Cohen” to be the “Textbook Guru” but for the blog to ultimately be a voice for different experts in their field to share their opinion. My goal in some of the things I’ll be doing in the next six months since it took off—better than I had expected—would be to try and have gurus sharing their opinions and making this a place where people will want to come because the top rental and digital people are blogging here. It’s really a community within the higher education—or textbook space—that is respected, and so therefore people want to share their opinions as well as read the opinions of others.
EF: Sounds like a great plan. I wish you luck with it!
JC: Thank you! I have to tell you I am surprised we never met. I’ve been thoroughly following “Flat Word Knowledge” ever since your first stick figures were all you had on your website.
EF: That’s right.
JC: I do like how ever big or however much funding you’ve gotten you still haven’t taken away the cartoon or conceptual drawing off of your site. At the beginning I was more amazed at how could this company who’s done nothing being mentioned in every article about textbooks.
EF: My wife is equally amazed. She’s a scientist so she’s like “I don’t get it, now I’m completely suspicious of the media, cause all of the news is clearly fabricated who have some sense on how to do it.”
JC: That’s absolutely true. I also think that you guys—to your credit—you guys have been speaking out a change that’s been on the horizon for a period of time, and nobody really knew what the change was or how it was going to come to be.
EF: I think that’s absolutely right. I think we are no better at PR than anyone else. I think it’s being in the right place at a time of monumental change—it’s change that’s really at the intersection of so many things that so many people are wondering about or trying to figure out. There’s this multibillion-dollar industry itself, which is clearly undergoing transformation, and the question is “what transformation and what direction?” But I think a lot of the themes that are being echoed in that discussion are also hitting in lots of other areas: higher education, affordability in general at a time when budgets are cutting, and tuitions are going up.
That’s a big debate in the context of 80% of jobs in 2020 are requiring degrees and 40% of people will have them. What barriers can we remove and just the whole question of free content in whatever publishing or information field you are in, what is that about—open systems and open source supplies for more and more things. We are sitting at a cross section of so many poignant issues that we are just in a good place. We’ve executed it enough that we’ve earned the right to talk about this stuff now, even though at the beginning we had some clever stick figures.
JC: Absolutely. So, one of the questions I have for you is: the way I see the future is really kind of an unsettled debate of a change of learning systems and a change to open content—so a change to learning systems is probably what I’d dub more the Inkling, or the deal McGraw has done with Blackboard versus the open education platform—such as platforms like yourself, or the ones being founded by the state of California, there’s one through MIT, there’s several open platforms that are out there. Do you see ultimately it settling into one or the other? Is it like Betamax versus VHS? Do you see a hybrid of the two? Which one do you think is better for the students?
EF: I actually don’t see it quite the same way. I actually think of open content being more of the “car,” and the things like Blackboard delivery or Inkling delivery on an iPad as being more of the highway that it is driving on. I’m not sure that they are mutually exclusive. I think the issue is that people do want to do a couple different things with technology. I don’t think there is a mutual exclusivity between these things. I think people are looking to technology to keep costs down, and I think that it is often over looked in the tech debate but probably one of the greatest reasons tech gets adopted across lots and lots of markets—cause it’s driving costs of things way down.
I think that people have expectation in this particular market. But I also think that people are looking to technology to deliver information in ways that might be more effective given the fact that these systems allow us to do that, whether it’s flashy simulation that engages students at a higher level, or whether it’s robot assessment systems that tell you what you do know and what you don’t know and serve up what you need to know and therefore make learning more efficient. So I think people have two goals with tech—there’s more—but fundamentally those two goals.
I think open content, in some ways, opens up the opportunity to do both of those in some ways. Certainly the way we think about it at Flat World, we are building open content—open textbooks—and we are building a platform to allow you to take advantage of the open license to customize or modify it. But once you’ve done that our general viewpoint is to be sort of what we think of as “platform agnostic.” Ultimately if you want that book delivered as a print book, then fantastic! We have that option for you, which we’ll print on demand and fulfill! You know if you want that book on your iPad, in a format that utilizes the functionality of the iPad, fantastic! We’ll sell you an e-pump file directly. If Inkling gets significant enough attraction in the market and there is a base of people saying, “I like these Inkling versions of textbooks,” then we’ll do a deal with Inkling, and Flat World Knowledge books will be available on the Inkling app on the iPad, for those who want that premium iPad experience. Thinking with LMS delivery I think that those things are en route deliverables that add value. You may want to disaggregate all the content of a textbook embedded deeply into your Blackboard course and serve it up as a course. I think that open content lends itself well to that kind of usage.

So I guess in the end I frame up the future a little bit differently. I tend to think about where’s the market headed? Are they looking for open textbooks? Are they looking for the Inkling, sort of flashier more engaging textbooks? Or I tend to think of a third broad category of are they looking for sort of assessment driven textbooks, or assessment centered textbooks? I guess that the market is going to bifurcate and there’s going to be segments of the market looking for all of those things. In the end open is just content that can serve both of those other segments, but I think it will have it’s own core segment of people who value affordability and flexibility of the nature of open content. I think those things are going to coexist. It’s a big market and so I am always very comfortable when we are talking to funders or others saying, “Hey, look: if 30-40% of the market is a segment appropriate for open content, hallelujah, cause that’s a big market.”

JC: One of the concepts I have always believed, or have been preaching, is that the movement is going to take place in K-12, which will really drive the move into higher ed. My thinking behind that is that professors like to hold on to this belief of choice and it’s a harder platform to remove everybody from using the Cambel, Biology book to using a Flat World Knowledge Biology, whereas if you take your algebra book and you get it implemented by the city of Los Angeles then you automatically are being used by hundreds of classrooms in the city of Los Angeles. Do you agree with that? Do you see the K-12 market moving at a faster pace towards digital, or the higher ed moving at a faster pace towards digital?

EF: I think that’s a good question. If the question is “where digital will be implemented faster,” it probably will be higher ed. Probably a difference of opinion here as well. I can make an argument for K-12 because it’s logical, and if costs come down those budgets are so strained that they’re looking for ways to do this; they need more data about students by mandating, and having people do things digitally that they were doing in an analog world before allows you to gather a lot of data that you can than mine and roll up into various findings that I think are important for getting continued funding. I think there are lot of big arguments can be made that it will be happening in K-12.

On the other hand, what I think happens in higher ed sometimes, even though you do have professor inertia in that freedom of choice issue, you can pick off parts of that market quickly for that same reason. If you think about innovation and risk, it’s a lot of risk and innovation to build something going after that LA County market, in an all re-associated expense of selling and marketing up against entrenched players with deep pockets in those types of markets in a very long sale cycle to get there with a very low probability of success at the end. I could easily pick up 200 Campbell users and market at 20,000 students, which pay the bills for the first year while you build your market.

I think that one of the other issues on digital is that on digital infrastructure; certainly on campuses will be better. You get ubiquitous wireless for example. I think some of the pace of change in K-12 is dictated by the lowest common denominator. If everyone can’t access it at home or in the school and they are slower to move towards it where as in college environment it’s ubiquitous on campus and if it’s off campus you can find it—but this is where we head it. It’s six in one hand and a half dozen in the other for me, but I think because of the fact that the higher ed market allows for the longer runway for innovation it may happen there faster. But it’s hard to make that argument here clearly.

Check back in for Part Two of our conversation with Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge! Chime in here in the comments or shoot me a message with your thoughts.