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Disrupting Textbooks: cK12 and Flat World Knowledge

In Nyack NY, north of NYC, a seed is forming.  Flat World Knowledge, a company bent on disrupting the textbook business, is getting ready to move into a private beta next spring with 10 textbooks in business and economics.  Jeff Shelstad, CEO, and Eric Frank, CMO, left regular textbook publishing where, as of late, publishers are fighting to keep their head above water by jacking up prices and skewing the revision process.  After hooking up with David Wiley and Brad Felix, the group decided to turn the textbook market on its head by utilizing open source methodologies.  Just looking at their team and advisory board, you know they are going to be one of the leaders in a nascent effort to shake down the publishing money tree, and perhaps liberate considerable cash flow for both higher education and k12, who annually see somewhere around 20 billion a year spent just to get textbooks that seem, to digital natives, a bit dry and out-of-date.


The movement to completely disrupt the textbook market has other players bound for significant traction.  cK12, run by Neeru Khosla, is focusing on the k12 market and is perhaps a little further along in product development.  (Honorable mention, Chegg, the “Netflix” of texbooks, based in Santa Clara, is reducing the amount students pay for books by as much as 70%, and has already hit some $10MM dollars in revenue.  But, let’s focus on this open source model championed by cK12 and Flat World Knowledge.)  Out in the heart of Sillicon Valley, cK12 is in the right place to come up with innovative technology.


Both cK12 and Flat World Knowledge have their own open publishing platform.  They reach out to highly reputable authors to write the first textbooks on topics targetted to both early adopters and for high impact.  (With cK12 its Engineering).  Since each textbook is under the Creative Commons License, they each have a way for teachers who use the textbook to “modify” it and make it their own, and then share the modified version.  Eventually, they hope to allow open textbook creation, and I think that’s possible now on cK12.  However, it is important that the organizations earn a reputation for quality and authority, the primary drivers of textbook adoption.


While cK12 is a non-profit, Flat World Knowledge plans to make money through on-demand printing (because, let’s face it, most people want to hold what they are reading in their hand if they are going to be spending hours and hours with it) as well as ancillary supplemental materials, a $14BB dollar market.  I personally believe that the best disruptive products usually come from for-profit businesses.  However, the CTO of cK12 is Murugan Pal, which should completely render that tendency invalid, at least in this case.


Though both products are still too early to weigh their great advantages and disadvantages, I’ll be really excited to get in and use them.  I’ve talked to people at both groups (Murugan Pal even met me for coffee) and I couldn’t be more hopeful that something big is afoot.  It’s part selfishness: I have a thematic approach to US History that I can’t wait to get out.  And I’m in the process of open sourcing my college readiness curriculum, Academic Ninjitsu, so I’d love to have an outlet for that where teachers can go and change how they need to.


Share your thoughts about open source textbooks.  And be sure to use the products.

4 Responses to “Disrupting Textbooks: cK12 and Flat World Knowledge”

  1. bdog November 14, 2008 at 5:13 am #

    The concerns I have with “open source” are brought out in your first sentence….
    It is Nyack, New York, not Dayac. The bridge is the Tappan Zee Bridge, not the Tapanzee and I have never heard of a part of a bridge being called a mouth. How do you know that the Nyack side is the mouth? I am sure the people across the river in Westchester County will be upset that they are “the butt”.
    Publishers are accountable for accuracy. I know that the argument for open source is that the contributors will ensure accuracy, but that is yet to be seen.

  2. Gordon Rogers November 14, 2008 at 7:38 am #

    The gulf between the big textbook publishers and start-ups like Flatworld Knowledge and CK12 is cogently summarized in a recent book by Clayton Christensen, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”:

    “There is little dispute among textbook publishers that because individual students learn differently, they need differentiated learning options. But the textbook companies can’t get there from here. Were they to focus on developing different books for each type of intelligence, their volume per title – and their profitability – would decline markedly. Because this is so disruptive to their business models, most of the intellectual and financial energy of this formidable industry focuses on creating and commercializing still more blockbuster books for large, undifferentiated masses of students.”
    This book is a must read for anyone engaged in the business of disrupting the old model of educational publishing. I have talked with the founders of both organizations mentioned in your post, and I have no doubt they will be among the leaders of the Textbook 2.0 economy (unless they get bought by Pearson first). For more about these start-ups read

  3. mpstaton November 14, 2008 at 3:18 pm #


    thanks for your post there. i should have taken the time to fact check that. was in a hurry.

    actually, this helps to prove the open source point. you corrected me less than 24 hours after my mistake, and now it's corrected. if there's an error in a textbook, it can't be fixed until next revision (which is going to cost another $100).

    Thanks for your knowledge of the tri-state area. I've only been there a few weekends.

  4. mpstaton November 14, 2008 at 3:19 pm #


    Love the post. Christensen, as always, provides a good framework for thinking about disruption. I appreciate you taking the time to insert that comment and I will follow your blog.


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