Computing instructor Matt Basham's suggestions for improving Cisco Systems' official training manuals fell on deaf ears for years. But he appears to have the networking giant's attention now.
Basham, a professor of information technology and IT security at in Clearwater, Fla., wrote his own 800-page Cisco networking textbook and last week made it available for download over the Internet free of charge.
More than 2,000 copies were downloaded around the world in the first few days of the book's online release, according to , an alternative textbook publisher that agreed to distribute it.
"Cisco's curriculum is fine, but we needed something different to get students ready for work in the real world," said Basham, who is also program director for the Cisco Certified Network Associate classes at the college. "About half the people in this program barely know how to turn on a computer, so we need to start with the very basics. The Cisco curriculum and texts assume a certain level of knowledge."
Basham's solution highlights powerful new publishing techniques that promise to shake up the textbook industry, offering cheaper alternatives to cash-strapped students.
On average, college freshmen spend $900 a year on textbooks, according to a survey by the (CALPIRG). The issue of overpriced books has piqued the interest of some members of Congress, who are asking for an investigation into the pricing policies of textbook publishers. Several states, including California and Georgia, also are looking into inflated textbook costs. CALPIRG accuses the textbook industry of bundling high-priced extras, such as CD-ROMs, with books and coming out with new editions, even though much of the material hasn't been changed.
Thanks to the Internet and new printing technologies that have reduced costs and improved quality, thousands of authors are publishing their own books and distributing them through virtual publishers that can allow readers to download copies or get their books printed on demand. The new publishing model has made it possible for authors like Basham to develop customized content and offer it to students for a minimal cost.
"The biggest complaint of most kids in college today is that their books cost too much," Lulu.com CEO Bob Young said. "Self-publishing is revolutionizing the way books are distributed, especially in an academic setting. Not only will it reduce the cost of content, but it will improve the quality of the content that's available."
Forefront of publishing
It's little surprise that Lulu.com is at the forefront of this new and open form of publishing, considering Young was also one of the co-founders of . Red Hat commercialized Linux, a free, open-source operating system that competes with Microsoft's Windows operating system.
Lulu.com's mission is to empower authors and consumers, Young said. It has given a voice to educators and authors who otherwise are ignored by large publishing houses.
"Basham is a good example of a person who otherwise wouldn't be able to bring a book to market," he said.
Basham originally wrote his manual three years ago to supplement books published by Cisco as part of the , a training program that teaches students how to use the company's networking products.
Cisco developed the program, which is taught in high schools, technical schools, colleges, universities and community-based organizations, in 1997 to prepare people for the Cisco Certified Network Associate and Cisco Certified Network Professional certification examinations. It's now taught in 145 countries and all 50 U.S. states. To date, more than 260,000 students have enrolled at more than 9,800 Cisco academies.
The cost of Cisco's program varies, depending on where it's taken. At St. Petersburg College, the battery of Cisco Academy classes can cost around $2,200. They can go as high as $7,000 at other, private institutions. Books and technical journals recommended for each class can total $200 per student.
Cisco doesn't profit from the program or from the sale of any related materials for the coursework. Instead, it reinvests the money that is generated back into the program, according to Heather Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the company.
Students get reprieve
Still, by using Lulu.com, Basham is able to help his students defer some of the financial burden of the course. Downloading the book from the Web site is completely free, and the document can be printed for $25 per copy—a bargain considering Cisco's text sells for around $100 in bookstores. Basham and his co-authors get a $5 royalty on every printed book. The rest of the money goes to Lulu.com for publishing costs.
St. Petersburg student Tina McGuire, 33, who has already taken $20,000 in loans in the past year to pay for tuition and living expenses while she goes back to school, is grateful not to have to spend $100 on another textbook.
"Every little bit helps," she said. "It's nice to get something for free for a change. This is really Matt's way of doing something for his students. He really gets personally involved with all of us."
Before publishing the book on his own, Basham said he had contacted Cisco Press about publishing it, but it wasn't interested. After his free book appeared online last week, however, the company contacted him via e-mail requesting a meeting to discuss the program at St. Petersburg College.
Company spokeswoman Goodwin said that Cisco is always looking for ways to improve the program.
She said that although instructors are required to teach the Cisco Academy curriculum, they are welcome to supplement it as necessary. She also emphasized that none of the Cisco Academy students are required to buy any of the textbooks from Cisco.
"Cisco has a long-standing relationship with St. Petersburg College," she said. "And we have a process-oriented quality assurance program with the (Cisco) Academy where we work collaboratively with institutions to solicit feedback. We are continually making improvements based on customer needs."