Sometimes free costs too much. As of January 1, 2013, Flat World Knowledge, which used to describe itself as the worldâ€™s largest publisher of free and open textbooks online, will no longer offer content at no charge.
Cost partly motivated the decision, according to Jeff Shelstad, the companyâ€™s co-founder and chief executive officer. â€œWeâ€™ve got to be smart with the limited capital that we haveâ€ if the company is to survive 10 years from now, he said.
Thereâ€™s also â€œan element of fairnessâ€ behind the move, Mr. Shelstad said. Some institutional partners have been paying as much as $20 to $25 per student for access to Flat World content, while other partners pay far less. The goal is to even things out while remaining affordable, according to Mr. Shelstad. â€œWe have anchored ourselves around affordability, and we are still there with this move,â€ he said.
The companyâ€™s model allows instructors to customize textbooks and students to pick different packages of contentâ€”textbooks in different formats, related study guides, and so onâ€”depending on what they want. The only thing that will change is that there will be no free option, Mr. Shelstad said. â€œWeâ€™re still a great, affordable solution that gives you control of content,â€ he added.
Flat World has recently begun to explore the possibilities of so-called MOOCâ€™s, ormassive open online courses. This fall, it agreed to provide access to a textbook for a free, introductory course in solid-state chemistry offered by edX, the joint Harvard-MIT online-education venture.
Mr. Shelstad doesnâ€™t expect the lack of free options to hamper the companyâ€™s ability to work with edX and other providers of free online education. â€œI donâ€™t see any reason why we wonâ€™t continue to partner with MOOCâ€™s,â€ Mr. Shelstad said. â€œIâ€™m not sure this will have much impact on that at all.â€
Flat World has talked to some 200 of its institutional members about the change, the chief executive said. â€œI would say that 190 have more or less said, â€˜Not a problem,â€™â€ he told The Chronicle. â€œOf course, we have some who are really committed to the open license.â€
Flat World authors, meanwhile, â€œare almost 100 percent in agreement with this move,â€ he said.
â€œCampus Marketplace,â€ the newsletter of the Association of College Stores, first reported Flat Worldâ€™s decision to drop its free option. â€œA number of our members work with Flat World Knowledge or have its adoptions on their campus, so this will likely be of interest to multiple folks in the industry,â€ Mark Nelson, the associationâ€™s vice president and chief information officer, told the newsletter.