Colleges aren't the only enterprises interested in the possibilities of free, online courses. Publishers have begun to investigate whether so-called MOOC's, or massive open online courses, can help them reach new readers and sell more books.
For the moment, providers of the classes encourage professors not to require students to buy texts, in order to keep access as open as possible. So publishers can't count on MOOC's to generate a course-adoption sales.
But online courses do have recommended-reading lists, and enrollments in the tens of thousands. If even a small percentage of those online students buy books, the sales could add up to a nice boost for a textbook.
"We are actively tracking the development of MOOC's and believe they do represent a promising market for university-press titles," said Ellen W. Faran, director of the MIT Press.
Her press has already enjoyed what appears to be one MOOC-related sales bounce. A course taught in spring 2011 by Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the online provider Coursera, featured an MIT Press book as recommended reading: Probabilistic Graphical Models: Principles and Techniques, written by Ms. Koller and Nir Friedman. The course had an enrollment of 44,000, Ms. Faran recalled. "We saw a dramatic spike in the sales of this upper-level text last spring," she said.
From her perspective, online courses have another advantage: They attract many international students, a group that university presses are trying harder to reach.
Some publishers already operate with business models well-suited to new experiments in free online education. Flat World Knowledge Inc., for instance, bills itself as "the world's largest publisher of free and open college textbooks."
Jeff Shelstad, the company's founder and chief executive, says he hopes that some MOOC providers will look to the publisher as a source of course reading. That has already happened with an edX course scheduled to start in October, "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry." Taught by Michael J. Cima, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the course features a Flat World textbook as recommended reading.
The publisher gives away online access to all of its 75 or so titles, counting on some students to add a paid option, such as a printed copy, a downloadable version, or flashcards and other supplements. Mr. Shelstad said. Flat World will be in some 7,500 traditional classrooms this academic year, he said; a typical class size is about 65 students. "So if the MOOC is bringing in 13,000, that's a big deal for us."
In traditional classroom courses, "generally we convert 40 percent of students to a paid experience at around $30," Mr. Shelstad said. "If we could get that in a MOOC, that would be awesome."
MOOC students may not behave like traditional students, though. Many sign up for the free courses but don't keep up with lecture videos or assigned homework.
At least one company, Morgan & Claypool Publishers, has experimented with special pricing for texts in free online courses. With a focus on science, engineering, and computer science, the company specializes in works that are 100 to 125 pages in length—longer than journal articles but shorter than most traditional textbooks—delivered online to colleges that license them. It also sells titles individually.
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