The Other Side of Open Textbooks: A Conversation with Author John Gallaugher

Education-Portal.com's talked a lot about open textbooks, especially those offered by publisher Flat World Knowledge (FWK), whose texts provide free online access as well as low-cost print alternatives. Obviously open texts are great for students (and their wallets), but we wanted to learn about the phenomenon from another side. Thus we spoke with popular FWK author John Gallaugher, whose 'Information Systems' has provided one of the most interesting examples of an open text so far.

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by Eric Garneau

John Gallaugher

Throughout his career, John Gallaugher has embraced new technology. One look at his blog makes this interest clear; from Wikis to Twitter to podcasts, Gallaugher's expertly capitalized on the technological zeitgeist. In addition to his personal pursuits, he currently holds the title Associate Professor of Information Systems (IS) at Boston College, and the work he's done there has been lauded by entities like BusinessWeek and Entrepreneur Magazine, in no small part because of his cutting-edge, ultra-current approach to education. That approach led him to become an early adopter of open textbooks through popular publisher Flat World Knowledge (FWK). We spoke with Professor Gallaugher to garner some unique insight into both the creative and educational sides of FWK texts. Sure they can save students money, but it turns out that's far from the only benefit to using FWK books in the classroom.

Education-Portal.com: When did you first become aware of FWK? What got you thinking that open textbooks were right for you?

John Gallaugher: FWK was visiting campus and stopped by to chat. I had been drafting .pdf chapters for use in my own courses and had posted these to my website to share with others. The initial response was positive, but FWK's outreach prompted me to think about writing an entire book and making it available through their firm.

I loved the model - free online, low-cost print. FWK allowed me to reach a much wider audience far more quickly than a conventional text. Even though I've published in top journals, I feel that my open textbook project has had a larger impact on my discipline than any conventional research project I've been involved with.

What's more, while anyone can self-publish, there is still a role for the publisher. FWK provides me with editorial, layout, graphic work, image/copyright clearance and marketing, among other benefits. All of these are outside the normal teacher-scholar primary skill set, and I find that, for me at least, working with a publisher is far better than trying to go it alone. FWK hits the sweet spot on the 'solo' versus 'conventional publisher' continuum. And the downside to me as an author is also very low - I retain copyright and make my own choices on content, writing style, etc.

E-P: Information Systems is your first textbook. What was the process of making a text for FWK like? Had you even considered creating it in a more traditional style?

JG: I set the update schedule and FWK was very comfortable with all ideas I've had. For example, I posted .pdf drafts of all of the first versions of my chapters as soon as I felt they were ready for distribution. I thought this was important for getting early feedback, and it was helpful in generating advanced buzz, too. I also sent out a single note to the Information Systems faculty listserv and within 24 hours had hundreds of downloads worldwide and with one e-mail reached every continent save Antarctica. Interestingly, FWK was pushed by the faculty community to release an initial 'beta' version of the book in print and online before they even had a chance to complete edits and graphic work - again, something that'd never happen with a conventional publisher.

Whenever I have updates I work with the FWK team on revisions. Currently I'm updating the text about every six months. That keeps FWK busy, but they've been able to hit print publication deadlines and keep chapters and cases on topics such as social media, Netflix, Google, etc., all very current. And for any faculty that don't want to update content that quickly, older versions of the text remain available both in print and online. My publisher also allows faculty to add content to existing chapters or to cut out certain sections. Some faculty have, for example, eliminated a table or exhibit I've included, opting instead to let the class develop this content through discussion, in-class exercise or as an answer to exam question. That's the kind of flexibility that I'd never be able to offer through either a solo-published effort or via a conventional hardback text.

As for a more traditional publication - no, that's not in the cards. Free online publishing allows me to have rapid reach and lets quality content spread virally. Many faculty have adopted the text after using one or two chapters. They simply pointed students to the URL. I've heard from many faculty that when evaluations came in students raved about the 'online' content over the conventional text. That gave faculty incentive to drop their old content. This kind of market disruption and rapid diffusion could never have occurred if I'd offered a conventional, $200 textbook. It's been fun to be involved with this effort since one of the things that I study (and a theme of the book) is tech-driven market disruption.

E-P: Are there any kinds of audience concerns you have when writing an open textbook - that can be easily accessed by anyone around the world - that you might not have thought about if you were producing a more traditional book for a U.S.-only publisher?

JG: Global reach is immensely rewarding. In the age of Google Analytics and social media, it's pretty easy to get a quick read on how rapidly content is spreading. And it's incredibly motivating to get regular feedback from faculty and students worldwide.

I was also motivated by a desire to combat negative U.S. enrollment trends in technology studies. Much of the material that ended up in my text came from a rework done at Boston College on our IS course offering. Our IS enrollments went up four-fold in the four years following the core course redesign - a trend in stark contrast to the enrollment declines most other U.S. programs had seen during the prior decade. So I'd figured, why not share this with colleagues worldwide and let more programs in our discipline benefit. The upside from sharing content widely far outstrips putting barriers around one's work.

If I do have a disappointment, it's that there aren't any widely-accepted impact metrics that show the value of this kind of work. Conventional researchers point to journal impact factors and citation counts - and existing promotion and tenure regimes are set up to reinforce the importance of these metrics. There are currently no widely-accepted metrics one can point to that say an open text has as much discipline-specific value as conventional research. As a tenured faculty member I have the luxury to be able to experiment with this kind of scholarship and not be worried about losing tenure by diverting my finite work schedule away from journal articles. I emphatically believe that offering compelling open content is the area where I can most significantly contribute to my discipline and that this is a legitimate and worthy channel for certain scholars to spend their time. And for that reason I think it's really important for other faculty, especially senior scholars, to reach out to those whose work they use. An e-mail 'attaboy/attagirl,' a tweet, or, more compellingly, a willingness to advocate with impact testimonials come promotion time are all vital to nurturing a healthy ecosystem of open content.

E-P: With a topic as current and in-flux as yours, FWK allows you to update your text almost instantaneously. What are some times that has come in handy?

JG: The text has come out with printed updates roughly once every six months - that rate is entirely determined by me, so I could slow down if I wanted to, but I really want my classes to be current. And if I'm doing updates for my own students, then these should be available to all. This update schedule lets the most current content outpace not only all textbooks, but also older articles in course packs that many faculty rely on. For example, updates in the January version (1.3) of my text will include the Qwikster failure at Netflix, the Google acquisition of Motorola Mobility and framing of the Kindle and iCloud in the context of Moore's Law and other trends in technology price/performance. The goal is to wrap the latest industry trends and examples around durable management theory and enduring concepts. For the most part, the structure of updates has remained the same, so faculty can expect the same theory in roughly the same location in the text, but this content is regularly refreshed with current examples that I hope will most easily resonate with each new generation of students.

E-P: Have you gotten any kind of feedback on your text from either students or other teachers? How has the response been?

JG: The response has been great and regular feedback from faculty and students is a huge motivator promoting me to continually refine, update and improve the work. My continued thanks go to all who take the time to write. Feedback has ranged from simple tweets (example from a Canadian student I'd never met: '@lindenwilcock: Is it the content I like, or is it John Gallaugher's writing prowess? Either way, thanks @gallaugher!') to speaking invitations. This past August, for example, I was the international keynote speaker at the African International Business and Management conference in Nairobi, Kenya. I was on the radar of the organizing committee in large part due to the fact that material from my textbook is being used by faculty at the University of Nairobi. It was a tremendous honor - I appeared on a keynote docket with leading African business executives and government ministers, including a personal hero, Bob Collymore, the CEO of the billion-dollar telecom firm Safaricom (whose M-Pesa is mentioned in my text). As a result of all of this, I'm planning a technology-in-developing-economies course with a Kenyan field study for the summer of 2013.

E-P: Beyond open textbooks, you've embraced technology for most of your educational career. What are some other innovations you make use of that you think other educators might want to look at?

JG: Social media - it's a huge catalyst for benefits across higher ed. I gave a talk at Apple's AcademiX conference last spring; you can find video and slides with my ideas and examples. Social media is a centrifuge that can draw together and concentrate all of the great work done by functional silos in a university: teaching, research, advancement (fundraising), career services, admissions, alumni relations. These functions can be excellent on their own, but social media makes the sum way more valuable than individual parts.

Wikis transform the classroom experience - providing a platform for showcasing student excellence for self-assessment and exposing and raising the performance bar. Blogging is a writing platform where students can get comments from peers and from a worldwide community (managers, alumni). Podcasts done 'right' don't cause students to skip class - instead they empower students with a resource to learn more, learn faster and to never be penalized for a legitimate absence. Twitter is an easy way to share articles, resources and support and learn from others. In an age when so many senior managers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and journalists are tweeting on topics they feel passionate about (and willing to share) there's no excuse for not being on Twitter. Those who aren't risk ignorance and obsolesce. The well-curated list of Twitter accounts to follow has become one of my most critical learning resources. We're way beyond the days of Ashton Kutcher tweeting about his salad.

While we should warn students about 'over-sharing' on Facebook, we should even more emphatically encourage students to establish a positive social media persona. Social media is the new resume and, done right, it can showcase and amplify one's excellence. LinkedIn and blogging allow faculty to keep in regular contact with former students. And alumni can be platinum-value resources for research sites, class speakers, student placement, development and more. We've integrated these tools into our informal advising, our extremely successful venture competition, our on-campus speaker series and our off-campus field study program. If there's one message I think is worth shouting from the mountaintop, it's that social media is higher ed rocket fuel and universities/faculty/administration that don't understand this are competing at a disadvantage.

E-P: If anyone reading this isn't totally sold on open textbooks, what might you tell them to change their mind?

JG: For adopting faculty - there's really no downside. If you read content that you like, you can assign it to students and allow them to consume it in any way they like - free through a browser, low-cost print, and FWK even has audio chapters ('read' at the gym - no excuse for arriving at class unprepared). For authors, there's never been a way to more rapidly distribute content to a global audience. The $200 conventional textbook market is a 'hit-driven' industry where leaders are entrenched and faculty switching costs are high. Trying to break into this market with another $200 text with an 18 month-plus draft-to-distribution deadline is likely not the path to success and impact. Open is the way to go. No one celebrates the loss of jobs in conventional publishing, but I have little faith that those entrenched in the old models will survive the current and coming disruption.

Want to learn more about Flat World Knowledge? Check out our interview with co-founder Jeff Shelstad.

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