When networking giant Cisco Systems told computer instructor Matt Basham it wasn’t interested in publishing a textbook he’d written to improve its Networking Academies training program, Basham decided to go at it alone, making the 800-page document available to teachers and students for free on the internet. The result is a networking text that is easy to read, less costly, and more widely accessible to students than Cisco’s own curriculum.

Since signing with online publisher Lulu.com, the professor of information technology and IT security at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater, Fla., estimates that more than 750,000 people across six continents have downloaded electronic copies of his book “Learning by Doing: Cisco Certified Network Administrator 3.0,” which is meant to equip networking students with the kinds of practical, real-world skills sought by employers in the digital workforce.

Basham’s success is a nod, at least in part, to the proliferation of online publishing houses, which have provided academics and other would-be authors with the technology to publish and distribute their own works at a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks and related course materials.

“I think that textbook prices are just outrageous,” said Basham, who believes the soaring costs of traditional textbooks and course enrollments might soon lead to what he calls the “dot-edu bust”–an era of over-priced education that would preclude some of the nation’s brightest students from enrolling in high-dollar technology courses.

Rather than wait as long as a year to publish his manual through a university press, where production costs and royalty agreements would have driven prices beyond what his students were likely to pay, Basham took his idea to Lulu.com.

The web-based publisher provides authors with the tools to self-publish their works online and in print without the clout of a major publishing house or literary agent.

Built by Bob Young, the internet innovator who co-founded open-source application provider RedHat, Lulu applies simple economics to make its products more affordable for consumers.

By cutting out the middle man and working directly with creators to bring these books to market, the company offers a cost-effective, fast, and customizable alternative to traditional book publishing, said Gart Davis, Lulu’s president and chief operating officer.

Instead of setting royalty payments for the books it publishes, Lulu allows its authors to dictate their own prices. The company has published printed texts for as little as $1 and as much as $200 a copy, Davis said.

Lulu receives a 20-percent commission for each sale, and the books are printed based on demand. In return, the company handles all transactions, order tracking, and shipping. So far, Davis said, Lulu has published more than 10,000 titles.

In the case of Basham’s manual, downloading the book from the web site is free and printed copies are available for $25 apiece. That’s quite a bargain, considering Cisco’s official textbooks can sell for more than $60 in university bookstores.

“If you to were to walk into any campus bookstore, you would be absolutely floored [by] the cost of the materials to take a genuine Cisco class,” said Davis, who called Basham’s manual “fundamental material for teaching networking on Cisco routers.”

The problem isn’t limited to technical courses, however. Students everywhere have been hit hard by soaring textbook costs.

According to the 2004 report “Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks,” a joint project of the California Student Public Interest Research Group and the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, college freshmen spent an average of $898 on textbooks during the 2003-04 school year–a 29-percent increase from seven years ago. Researchers attributed the spike to a number of factors, including the addition of bundled or shrink-wrapped CD-ROMs and workbooks and the frequency with which textbook publishers issue new or revised editions–a strategy that has made used books obsolete.

Prices have climbed so high, in fact, that even Congress is considering ways to make textbooks more affordable. Last year, Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., introduced H.R. 3567, which asks the U.S. General Accounting Office (now renamed as the Government Accountability Office) to investigate ways to reduce the high cost of textbooks.

Besides saving money, there are other incentives to online publishing, says LuLu’s Davis. For one, it allows authors to publish their works in less than 24 hours. It also enables them to update their texts with new information, so that training manuals, especially for evolving technology courses, never get outdated.

By combining educational theory with basic Cisco networking skills, Basham said he was able to construct a resource that not only enforces critical concepts, but also teaches students how to apply those concepts in real-world situations.

Educators familiar with the Cisco curriculum welcomed Basham’s manual as a means to help students navigate their way through what is a tough and rigorous certification process.

Bruce Miller, chairman of education technology at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of 3,000 U.S. high schools currently offering the Cisco Networking Academy program, said he would consider Basham’s book for his courses.

Even at Mariemont, a three-time national Blue Ribbon award winner for educational excellence, teaching high-level networking skills presents its fair share of challenges.

Miller said Cisco course writers assume a high level of knowledge and technical thinking, which can make the material appear “somewhat evasive.”

“They really have a tendency to beat around the bush,” he said. “Sometimes you read it and you wonder what they are talking about.”

Though Miller contends Cisco’s curriculum matches the CCNA certification test “very well,” he said the material is sometimes too advanced and difficult to understand, especially for inexperienced networking students.

Often, he said, it takes a teacher’s touch to bring that thinking down to the classroom level.

That’s where Basham feels his book can help.

“[Cisco] had a lot of computer geeks writing this thing up,” he said, referring to the company’s standard curriculum.

A longtime classroom teacher and computer whiz who is currently working on his Ph.D in education, Basham said his book brings the flavor of a seasoned educator to the often bland and overly technical world of computer-speak.

Since its online release earlier this month, Basham has received calls from several high school and university networking programs interested in purchasing printed copies of the text for their students. He also has been asked to give a series of guest lectures and other talks about his foray into online publishing, which he believes one day will revolutionize the textbook industry.

Back in Clearwater, passage rates on Cisco’s difficult CCNA certification test reportedly have risen from 10 percent to 90 percent since Basham first introduced his book to students at St. Petersburg College. What’s more, he said, enrollments have nearly tripled since school officials reduced the cost of the lab portion of the course from more than $2,000 to $1,000 per student–a request granted following the book’s success.

Though Basham said he has seen Networking Academy courses run as high as $8,000 at some schools, company spokeswoman Heather Goodwin said the cost of the program is determined by the institution and that Cisco does not profit from the purchase of networking equipment or materials. Rather, all funds generated by the purchase of lab equipment or materials by the Networking Academies are put back into the program for research and development, she said.

Goodwin would not say why Cisco declined to publish Basham’s book, but she said the company encourages educators to supplement the curriculum with materials “necessary for local implementation.”

“The program allows instructors to augment the required curriculum with their own creative teaching materials to address the diverse learning styles of their students,” Goodwin wrote in an eMail message to eSchool News.

Established by Cisco in 1997, the Networking Academy program teaches students networking and other skills related to information technology, preparing them for jobs as well as for higher education in engineering, computer science, and related fields, according to information posted on Cisco’s web site.

More than 400,000 students participate in academies operating in high schools, colleges and universities, technical schools, community-based organizations, and other educational programs around the world. The Networking Academy program blends face-to-face teaching with web-based curriculum, hands-on lab exercises, and internet-based assessment.

Links:

Cisco Networking Academies
http://cisco.netacad.net/public/academy/index.html

“Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks” (Executive Summary)
http://calpirg.org/CA.asp?id2=11987&id3=CA&

Lulu.com
http://www.lulu.com

Mariemont High School
http://www.mariemontschools.org/highschool.htm