Flooved, a whimsical mashup of the Latin words fluvius (river) and edition (published books), started out trying to be a Spotify for textbooks, said Hamish Brocklebank, its 27-year-old co-founder and co-CEO. But he and his counterpart Nicolas Philippe decided in January to shift directions into offering free textbook replacements. In part that was because it was proving difficult to get some publishers to sign on to the service, but they also believed that an educational firm should provide as much access as possible to texts.
January also saw academics begin a boycott of Elsevier, a leading publisher of academic journals, started by British mathematician Timothy Gowers and now with nearly 14,000 signatories. Flooved's founders wrote to many of the signatories asking if they would contribute content to it.
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Flooved is in its early stages. Right now, it has 12,000 users in 186 countries, and 3,500 pieces of content contributed by 800 math and physics professors. The biggest markets for it are the U.S., the U.K., Colombia and Iran, where the BBC has done a feature on the firm in the local language. Brocklebank says he expects growth to jump after school starts.
One professor who is already using it is Daniel Moskovich, a research fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. Moskovich adopted Flooved texts for a class of roughly 14 students studying graph theory, used to create models of relationships between pairs.
Moskovich uses Flooved as a text aggregator, allowing him to pick and choose among three different mathematical texts, depending on how they explain topics. "It lets me do this much more easily than if I assigned three different textbooks," said Moskovich, who added many students at Nanyang Tech come from poor countries, so having the option to avoid buying textbooks is useful. He says he can use it during lectures and students can post comments on the texts or on problems.
Moskovich has niggles, and a wish list. He'd like the software to have fewer bugs. Sometimes bookmarks move and the search feature is not very good. He'd also like more options for textbooks, and wishes he could update documents and integrate Flooved with Blackboard's Collaborate learning management system. But he says "these are the sort of criticisms one would expect of a new product." Overall, he's pleased with Flooved and has recommended it to colleagues at Nanyang Tech. He's also set up the head of IT at Nanyang Tech with Flooved.
Brocklebank says the company is hard at work on tackling issues with the beta, thanks to the comments of Moskovich and another pilot user at the University of Bergen in Norway. The company is also negotiating with six universities in the U.K. and three in the U.S. about pilots of its service. Over time, Flooved would like to integrate with learning management systems, but that's not a near-term plan.
"At the moment, it's a textbook replacement. Down the line, we want to turn it into a study platform," said Brocklebank. Flooved also needs to develop revenues. It intends to sell features such as annotations and pay-for-answer Q&As, and also sell to recruitment services. He says he hopes to launch paid services in December. Currently, the for-profit company has raised 521,000 pounds, or about $800,000, from private investors and a grant from the U.K.'s Technology Strategy Board. Primary investors include Lord Ashcroft, a wealthy British politician, and YouGov founder Stephan Shakespeare.
Brocklebank said he intends to try to avoid the legal issues that have dogged Boundless, a U.S.-based free textbook provider. Major textbook publishers sued Boundless alleging copyright and other violations. Professors, who sign forms affirming they hold copyright to their materials, contribute Flooved's database of materials.
Although open-education resources have been around for years, Brocklebank thinks that the much faster speed of today's Internet, combined with lower distribution and storage costs, have made it viable to offer free textbooks. If he's right, Flooved will see a flood of users.