The decision by Flat World Knowledge to stop providing free versions of its textbooks brings to mind the old adage, “Nothing in life is free.” Flat World plans to continue providing course materials at a price well below the cost of most textbooks, but the move will help make “our business healthier,” according to Flat World co-founder Jeff Shelstad in an interview with Inside Higher Education.
Flat World educational content was produced by paid authors to ensure high quality and marketed to professors to assign in their classrooms. The plan called for the company to make money by charging students for printed versions of the free and open educational content it created, and for enhanced study aids and other add-ons.
While those premium services did not sell as well as hoped, moving away from completely free content was also a matter of fairness, according to Shelstad. Some institutional partners paid licensing fees for every student using the materials and others paid less. Establishing a minimum price of $19.95 is fairer to all while still making it affordable to students, he says.
Flat World continues to be an affordable textbook solution, just not free, according to Cable Green, director of global learning at Creative Commons. It may also open the door for other free textbook providers, such as Boundless Learning, which markets its textbook alternatives directly to students.
“This reinforces the notion that sustainable business models are hard to find, and I don’t think that’s a surprise,” said Ariel Diaz, co-founder and CEO of Boundless. “We still see an opportunity to make the case that we’re better because we’re free and open, in that we can leverage the eyeballs and error-finding that we got from our community to lead to a better product as a result.”
That’s possible, but Flat World isn’t going away either. Shelstad reports that most of the company’s partners and faculty users have been supportive of the change, understanding that it allows Flat World to continue to produce course materials that have been popular with students.