Jon Williams is the New York-based Chief Technology Officer of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks for students.

For more on Flat World Knowledge

What brought you to Flat World Knowledge? Is this your first start-up?

No. I spent the 80’s and 90’s at start-up companies. First, as a lead programmer building WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) programs used by newspapers in Australia and the US. After 10 years, I left for New York to co-found a consulting firm. This led to CTO stints at two Internet companies: 24/7 Real Media, Inc., a digital marketing company; and CDNow, an online music retailer.

After my son was born in 2000, I moved to the corporate world in management positions at Grey Healthcare, Kaplan Test Prep and Admission, and iVillage, a division of NBC Universal. At Kaplan, I became a huge advocate of open source software, which we used to improve the company’s website performance 26-fold.

But the more people I managed, the more removed I became from technology development and I missed it. Since I enjoyed building educational products at Kaplan, I targeted educational start-ups, and that’s how I found Flat World Knowledge.  Now that I’m back at a start-up, I find it completely invigorating. Working in open source software and being on a mission to revolutionize the textbook industry makes for exciting (and crazy busy) days.

KCH: When we last checked in, Flat World Knowledge was just starting out. The response to the concept behind the business was strong, but how has this materialized in actual adoptions?

The response from the higher education community has been overwhelmingly positive. To date, we’ve got about 1,600 adoptions at over 900 colleges and universities in 44 countries, including India, the UK, China, and my home country, Australia.

Another exciting growth area for us is institutional textbook licensing. It works similarly to the way colleges purchase software licenses and offers a new way to deliver textbooks at a much lower cost to students. The University System of Ohio, Virginia State University and Baruch College are some of the institutions using this per-student, per-course licensing model.

Our catalog is quickly expanding to keep up with demand. We’ve got 35 titles, which we expect to double by spring 2012. We’re starting to have an impact outside the business curriculum, with books for high-enrollment courses, such as Introduction to Sociology, Introductory Chemistry and Elementary Algebra. Authors love our open textbook model. More than 115 have signed with us; about half who’ve published successful books with the big traditional publishers.

What about other signs of growth?

There are a lot more Flat Worlders these days! The staff has doubled since I started in January 2010. My team has expanded from 5 to 12 technologists. We also added project management. We moved to a much larger office space in Irvington, NY, but it’s filling up fast.

On the funding side—always important to a start-up—we’ve had some excellent news. In January, we announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI), a subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, a leading international media company, and Bessemer Venture Partners, a top global investment.

In April, Random House, which is also owned by Bertelsmann AG, came in with a separate, additional investment. This is a fantastic vote of confidence in our open textbook model and the quality of our authors’ work.

How are students choosing to use FWK titles? Which formats are they selecting? Any surprises?

No surprise that for now the majority of students still prefer a printed book. Our black-and-white softcover books are the most popular, followed by print-it-yourself PDF downloads. We’re platform agnostic, so whatever formats students want, we’ll provide it.

You’re responsible for building the new FWK platform, MIYO (Make It Your Own). What are the core features of this platform?

Simply put, MIYO is a digital publishing platform, but it’s much more than that. Most professors want to change something about their textbook so it better reflects their approach and teaching goals. But legal (“all rights reserved” copyright) and technology restrictions stand in the way.  MIYO changes that. It redefines what a textbook is and can be, and makes it easy for professors to control the content in ways not possible before.

For example, instructors can move or delete chapters and sections; upload Word and PDF documents; add notes and exercises; insert video and hyperlinks; edit sentences; and incorporate other content published under a Creative Commons open license. In future releases, instructors will be able to mix titles from our catalog and make their derivatives available to faculty outside their institution.

They can edit from any browser, and instantly see how their changes will look when the book is printed, downloaded or viewed online. Once the modifications are saved, MIYO automatically reformats and publishes the new version in multiple formats (print, PDF, HTML, ePub, .mobi, audio) without any human intervention.  The professor’s changes to the book are identified and highlighted.

What were some of the challenges in creating this new system?

The two big challenges were ensuring that it was easy to use, and figuring out a way to keep ongoing edits by authors and professors in lockstep. That was a huge hurdle to clear.

Ease-of-use is dear to me. Our faculty users are not tech power users, so I knew from the beginning that presenting XML to a professor would be confusing. We made sure to hide our XML and other technologies that allowed us to automate textbook publishing and customization. To a professor, it looks like a simple text editor that they can figure out how to use in a few minutes.

We utilized a lot of professors and teaching assistants as beta testers. We gave them no more guidance than a URL, and then just quietly watched what they did; how they figured things out.

And I’m happy to say that in designing MIYO’s digital-first architecture, we took full advantage of open source software wherever possible. [blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/sWCCq8pUAg%5D

From your perspective as a technology leader, how will you know if MIYO is successful?

We’re already seeing a nice spike in adopters customizing their books. For the 2011/2012 academic year, we expect about 50 percent of faculty will use MIYO. As CTO, I am looking to be ‘surprised’ by how professors are using the platform. I expect our team will be challenged to add new technologies and features to MIYO as our customers’ needs evolve.

One benefit of thinking of systems as a “platform” is that it forces you to take a longer view, and plan for future business growth and needs.

Thanks, Jon. 

Dr. Keith Hampson is on the Advisory Team at Flat World Knowledge

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