Online Textbooks Deliver Timely, Real-World Content

min read

Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology

John Gallaugher, Associate Professor of Information Systems, Carroll School of Management, Boston College

Online Textbooks Deliver Timely,
Real-World Content

By Kim Seidel

From the Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA) website ( Reprinted with permission.

Faced with the challenge of keeping up with the rapidly changing field of information systems (IS), author and teacher John Gallaugher opted to write an open source textbook with a new online company, Flat World Knowledge (FWK).

"The content in traditional IS textbooks is very weak," said Gallaugher, an associate professor in the Carroll School of Management, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass. "The cycle time is also quite long, so the content is often out-of-date. Consider how old content in Facebook or Google is with each traditional publication cycle. It's ludicrous to expect a student to spend $175 for this kind of product."

With those realities, he supplemented his courses with online sources for many years. "I then found it easy to wrap durable course concepts around contemporary cases," Gallaugher said. "I decided to move to the online venue when Flat World Knowledge approached me."

Gallaugher's open source textbook, Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology, has an expected publication date of summer 2009. Yet, he is publishing chapters and case drafts online as they're ready for release. About 40 percent of the book was online by September, and the material was already being used by faculty worldwide. The content is being added to the FWK platform as reviewers and other adopters provide feedback.

For teachers and students, open source textbooks provide fresh, current and engaging content, he said. The FWK format brings free, online content accessible from anywhere.

Gallaugher has found many benefits in FWK's model, including:

  • Retention of the copyright of his material.
  • Fast production cycles allow him to get content to consumers quickly.
  • The ability to provide a free online version of the product.
  • Low-cost print versions -- the print version of Gallaugher's online textbook starts at less than $30.

"There is also an opportunity to have my content become among the most widely adopted material used in my discipline," he said. "What a great way for faculty to have an impact."

In addition, the online version FWK is developing for Gallaugher's textbook includes a sophisticated interface. The online version will eventually include pop-ups for keywords and definitions. Plans for optional supplemental content include audio podcasts versions, along with ways for readers to easily engage the author to help make additions and improve subsequent versions.

FWK was founded in February 2007 by Jeff Shelstad and Eric Frank. Before starting their business, they had recently left a division of Prentice Hall/Pearson Education, where Shelstad was editorial director and Frank was director of marketing.

"We love the industry," Frank said. "We love signing great authors, developing books together, and putting together and executing sales and marketing campaigns that establish new market leaders. We have been as successful as any two people in doing that consistently throughout our careers."

But Shelstad and Frank realized the world was changing rapidly around them. "We couldn't get textbook publishers to change fast enough with it," Frank said. "We had this terrible feeling that we were spending our days rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. So it was time to move on and try it ourselves."

FWK pursues two types of author profiles in its acquisitions. The first are those who have already written a market leading textbook and who remain free agents to write their next book in a new course area with FWK.

"The second are those who display the characteristics of a highly successful textbook author, and who, therefore should write a textbook because together we can make it a market leader," Frank said. "John Gallaugher is this category."

FWK also looks at the prospective author's teaching accomplishments. "John is one of those 'top one percent teachers.' Students love him and are inspired by him, despite the fact that his course is consistently one of the most challenging," Frank said. "He has won numerous teaching awards, and his excellence in the classroom has been recognized in places like Business Week. His love for teaching comes through 30 seconds into a conversation with John. And no lecture or class is ever good enough for him. Despite the fact that student ratings of his course are consistently off the charts, he is always revising them, always looking for ways to improve them, always pouring his soul into ensuring that the next time he teaches a class it is the best time."

FWK also looks at a potential author's perspective in his or her discipline area. Gallaugher represents "the complete package" for the company, Frank said. "Besides being a phenomenal teacher, John is a highly respected and well published researcher. Additionally, he maintains a weekly technology blog with a wide readership, and he regularly consults with business clients on their IT (information technology) issues. These factors combine to form the kind of perspective on his discipline that we believe is the foundation of a future best-selling textbook."

In addition, authors with FWK need to have demonstrated the ability to execute their creative ideas and to be ambassadors to promote the book, Frank said. Authors also need to be "fun" to work with and have a shared mission with FWK, he added.

"We are signing new books at the rate of about 1.5 new books per month, or 18 to 20 per year," Frank said. "From signing to publication, the process takes about 18 months. The number of authors is growing at a nice rate, and as we become more public and more potential authors learn about our model, the rate of acquisition will grow."

The biggest question Gallaugher tackes in his book is how can IT creators compete when everyone can copy their technology and competition is so fierce. "We address this issue with real-world examples of what's happening in IS today delivered in a mix of chapters and cases," he said. "The book can be used across many levels, from first-year management studies to MBA's. We're using the content for both of these groups at Boston College."

Feedback from users helps him improve the book and increases its credibility among users. Everything he does in class is online. "This not only includes the text, but also PowerPoint slides, student questions to consider for reading, even podcasts," Gallaugher said. "I've also included marketing material to promote technology study among management students."

Gallaugher remains extremely passionate about his work, especially as the number of U.S. students studying IS and other technology disciplines are falling dramatically: "I see the book and online material as a special opportunity to share this content as a sort of 'great course in a box' with other faculty. I've been delighted to hear from others who've used the material. In fact, after just a single day, the Google Analytics tracking downloads lit up on all continents - save for Antarctica - no University of South Pole yet."

For Gallaugher, it has been a natural transition to write an open source textbook. He's created online content and blogged since 1997 - before the term "blog" was even coined. He's the author of the well-known blog Week in Geek (WiG) (; it's one of the oldest, continually published digests of its kind online. He said that authoring an online textbook has been an experience that he has found different from previous writing ventures, but tremendously rewarding.

"I'm writing material for students - future managers," Gallaugher said. "This gives me an opportunity to write in an engaging style, yet still wrap key managerial concepts around these 'fun' reads. My goal with the textbook was to make the content as easy to read as, say, an article from the mainstream trade press, such as BusinessWeek or Fortune."

The textbook also gives Gallaugher an excellent opportunity to share his experiences from his field work through Boston College. He spends several weeks a year with senior executives in tech firms in Silicon Valley, Seattle and throughout Asia. "While I can't take everyone with me on these experiences, the textbook project provides me with an accessible outlet to share this learning with the broader student and faculty community," he said.

As Frank noted, Gallaugher's, blog, WiG, attracted FWK. Gallaugher said his job is to keep track of interesting developments at the intersection of business and technology and to share these with his students and the broader community of scholars. WiG helps him to do just that. Many former students subscribe as well. "It's a great way to stay connected," he said. "Many WiG readers have helped us arrange site visits from Boston to Bangalore for our field study experiences, while others have come back to campus to speak, or have suggested other articles that have made other WiG additions."

Gallaugher highly recommends levering blogs to promote textbook content. "If other sites write about a topic, and you've got something important to say, you might mention a blurb and refer them to your online content," he said. "But do not use the blog as a flagrant self-promoting opportunity. Blog and article comments should add value; otherwise, you're seen as a spamming huckster. Online readers are fairly good at seeing through shill posts."

Gallaugher resides in Newton, Mass., and has two young children. For him, work and hobbies intersect; he loves what he does. "It's my motivation for teaching so much," says Gallaugher, a tenured research professor who voluntarily takes a three-course, teaching overload. "Being able to give back to our community via the book project and supplemental material is great. With FlatWorld's composition model, it will be wonderful to turn this into a lucrative move as well. That (monetary payback) will be key for authors because many authors will become disinterested if there's not a strong incentive for continued contributions.

"The winning textbook publishing model is one that empowers authors to make an impact and to make money. I think Flat World has cracked the nut, but we'll see."

© 2008 Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA). Kim Seidel is a freelance writer based in Onalaska, Wisconsin.