Open Ed’s Business Woes: Textbook Pioneer Flat World Knowledge To Revoke Free Access To Texts

Founded in 2007, Flat World Knowledge was one of the early pioneers in the move to bring free and open access to textbooks to students and educators. The independent publisher offered its learning content for free, giving students the access to texts in print, eBook form, eReaders, audiobooks and downloadable PDFs, etc. Produced by actual authors and reviewed by peers, Flat World allows teachers to modify and edit those texts to fit their particular class through its own simple editing tools, printing new copies on-demand.

With customizable, free texts on-demand, Flat World’s model won over many students, leading the company to claim that it had become one of the largest online publishers of free and open textbooks. Be that as it may, while many (aside from the big educational publishers) support the movement to make textbooks and educational content significantly more affordable — and even free — finding workable business models that support free and open access has proven challenging.

This week, Campus Marketplace reported that Flat World Knowledge has been forced to drop its free access to textbooks. The decision was made largely because of the cost of supporting free access. In other words it was a business decision that many have or will face as part of the shift to open learning.

Flat World offers its learning content for free, but charges for more convenient ways to access material for print or beefed-up versions and for study aids. By eliminating its free option, the company hopes to make its pricing more equitable for all of its institutional partners so that everyone is paying the same price.

The company will still offer bookstore partners to its so-called “All Access Pass” that includes a digital version of its textbooks, such as eBook files, PDFs, audio, HTML functionality and study aids for $28 and will sell the pass on its homepage for $35. Textbooks themselves will start at $19.95.

It’s not a huge change for students or partners, and nearly all of the company’s partners are on board with the move (as, obviously, are the teachers and experts producing the textbooks), according to The Chronicle of Higher Ed. Even if students end up paying $20 to $25 for their textbooks, it’s still a very attractive alternative to the cost of traditional textbooks.

Obviously, the company does not want to say that its free content is cannibalizing the revenue generated from charging students and institutions for premium features and content, but it’s clear that the company didn’t quite get the balance right.

The big textbook publishers, who have warned about jumping into the deep end and offering learning content for free — because they’re obviously worried about the de-valuation of educational content and the slimmer margins of the digital publishing world — are probably enjoying this announcement somewhat. Flat World was one of the first (though hardly alone, iTunes U, 11 Learning and Boundless have all been pushing forward in this space) to go head-to-head against traditional publishers and has made some progress, as its textbooks are now in 4,000 classrooms at 2,000 schools worldwide.

Many have followed and progress has been made in the quality of open content (and the quality of its curation), as well as the availability of digital options as the bigs (Amazon, Apple) and companies like Inkling and Kno try to reduce prices — or at the very least make digital textbooks more widely available. Unfortunately, although Flat World would never admit it, this announcement certainly serves as validation of the doubt over Open Educational Resources (OER) as a business concept.

Flat World has been a pioneer and some we’ve talked to assumed it might choose to go out of business before asking students to pay. But the world at large is coming back a bit from the overwhelming sense of entitlement to free content, and expectations are shifting. We’re moving to a time when publishers won’t be able to get away with charging $100 for a textbook, but there’s also mounting evidence that free isn’t exactly going to work either. Unless you’re a non-profit with significant financial backing, like CK12.

It also seems that, while it’s shift away from free may be understandable, Flat World has its own internal communication, management problems that it needs to address. Never a good sign.