With $9M From Bessemer, Open Textbook Pioneer Flat World Looks For New Life In Personalized Learning

When Flat World Knowledge first emerged back in 2007, the company was on a mission to overturn the textbook industry, and the staid world of educational publishing along with it. One of the pioneers in the movement to bring more affordable, “open” educational content to college students, Flat World has since grown into one of the largest open, eTextbook publishers in the U.S., with over one million students now accessing its content in 77 countries.

However, while education industry’s adoption of open education content and resources has begun to gain speed, thanks to resistance from traditional publishers, it’s been a bumpy road for companies like Flat World. Though its free, customizable and on-demand textbook model gained plenty of support from students over the years, in late 2012, the company was forced to drop free access to its textbook platform. Reflecting the monetization challenges faced by many open education platforms, the company said that the cost of continuing to support its free access model had become unsustainable.

Since then, Flat World has begun looking for more lucrative areas within education in which to grow its business. Moving to capitalize on the growing demand within education for personalized learning tools, the company is placing its bet on both adaptive learning and mobile.

To help develop a platform which aims to help universities offer mobile-first, adaptive courses and degree programs, Flat World announced this week that it has raised $9.5 million in venture financing led by Bessemer Venture Partners. The company’s existing investors, including Valhalla Partners, Tribeca Venture Partners, Penguin Random House Holdings and Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments, also participated in the round, bringing its total funding to $35.7 million.

While the company says that its textbook publishing business continues to grow, the new investment comes nearly three years after its previous round and, tellingly, will be devoted principally to developing its new platform. The raise follows on the heels of a new partnership with Brandman University in California, with the investment enabling Flat World to offer the university an online, competency-based bachelor of business administration degree. The key, however, to this new program is that it will be delivered “entirely on a mobile device for a total cost that is 65 percent lower than current alternatives,” the company said.

Going forward, Flat World will look to bring this kind of mobile-first, adaptive learning experience to other universities, enabling them to offer courses and degrees online and on mobile devices. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Call it pivoting, or “expanding,” Flat World’s new thesis and value proposition sounds strikingly similar to the one 2U has been pursuing for years, or to the latest incarnation of Udacity. It’s also a direction in which companies like Coursera and EdX have been moving.

The company said that it sees its new mobile-first learning platform for courses and degree programs as a natural extension of its publishing business, and it will no doubt be leveraging the personalization technology and content behind its textbook platform to support its new direction. Whether or not this augurs an eventual, more categorical shift away from the business it’s become known for remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the company fold the key assets into its new mobile courseware platform at some point.

Its eTextbook platform and digital content will provide the foundation on which it can build its new course and degree services business. Doing so likely gives Flat World a leg up as a growing number of education technology providers look to capitalize on the opportunities in adaptive learning and personalization tools.

For more, find Flat World’s release here.