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SPC tech professor gives his textbooks for free

The St. Petersburg College teacher skirts the rules with his lab manual for computer classes at the Cisco Academy.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Published June 21, 2004

[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Matt Basham, 38, wrote an 800-page manual for his students so they don't have to buy expensive Cisco training manuals. "I got that revolutionary streak in me and I say, let's give it away." Behind him is a diagram for a networks class.

In a testament to early computer politics, tech guru Matt Basham has decided to take online instructions off the Internet and into the physical domain.

Tired of seeing his students pay exorbitant prices for Cisco Systems' high end computer training textbooks, Basham found a way to give the information away for free.

He wrote an 800-page, two-volume manual of numbers, formulas and test tips that can be obtained by anyone who sends him an e-mail.

"I wrote our own lab manual a few years ago and they (Cisco) were upset about it," said Basham, program director for the award-winning Cisco Academy, which teaches students at St. Petersburg College how to use Cisco products. "We're putting out our own, new book in August. I got that revolutionary streak in me and I say, let's give it away."

SPC is backing him up. As is Bob Young, the creator of Red Hat, a well-known name among self-professed computer geeks. Red Hat is a version of Linux, an operating system such as Microsoft Windows. But unlike Microsoft, Linux is free. Red Hat adds other components to Linux, and charges for its product.

Basham's books will be available through Young's newest enterprise, www.lulu.com an Internet publisher that allows free downloads and low-cost print-on-demand book copies.

Based upon his previous book sales, Basham thinks about 20,000 people will download his new manual for free - or get a print copy for $20. It is deliberately written in nongeek language.

If this experiment works, it might cost Cisco. But the multibillion-dollar company, whose name is nearly synonymous with Internet networking, says it's not worried - as long as Basham's book doesn't replace Cisco's core teachings.

"From a Cisco perspective, instructors are required to teach the entire curriculum, and we welcome instructors to supplement the curriculum as necessary for local implementation," Cisco spokeswoman Heather Goodwin said.

Students who still want to use the official Cisco text are encouraged to do so, Basham said. But this new book, co-written by SPC faculty members Michael Gordon and A. David Vasquez, goes beyond the manual by teaching students what their future employers might require of them, and explaining computer terms the official manual does not.

Basham's book also replaces about $180 worth of lab and engineering journals that are designed to go with the official Cisco texts.

Basham won't benefit much, as he'll make minimal royalties, but the students will get a break on classes that start at $2,200 at SPC's Cisco Academy and cost up to $7,000 at other, private, institutions.

Basham thinks the manual will ruffle a few feathers at the San Jose, Calif., company.

He's not requiring his students to buy Cisco's text; instead he'll require them to use his book. He wants the students to have hard copies of the unofficial manual, so he's going to buy them himself through lulu.com and distribute them to his class in August.

"I think this is a new, crazy idea," said Basham, who has lectured at Harvard. "For me and my book, it should be free and open sourced. . . . Other people would charge a lot for this."

He stands to receive $5 in royalties per printed book while lulu.com keeps the rest. SPC is not asking for any of the proceeds.

"It's not a Robin Hood complex," Basham said. Rather, the move helps keep book-buying costs down at the nation's colleges, and could allow schools to link with SPC to collectively solicit grant money to pay for students' rather pricey Cisco exams.

Basham views the price of learning Cisco as a manifestation of class and status. Information shouldn't be accessible only to the well-off, he said.

The folks at lulu.com understand.

"It's the open source philosophy," said Stephen Fraser, spokesperson for lulu.com. "Open source is sort of a computer geek thing, but a lot of academics share this conviction that hoarding knowledge does nobody any good. The best way to leverage knowledge is to share it."

Red Hat founder Bob Young is "thrilled" that Basham chose lulu.com as a distributor.

"He's trying to reduce the cost of education and that's really what the Internet should allow," said Young, via phone from his headquarters in Morrisville, N.C.

Young doesn't doubt that 20,000 copies could indeed be accessed.

"The sort of people who use the Internet the most are the same people who need to learn about Cisco products," he said. "It's very possible that this product would become, quote unquote, a bestseller."

- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 21, 2004, 01:00:30]


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