For college students, the beginning of a new semester marks new classes, professors, classmates, and schedules, but with those changes comes an unavoidable process many have come to dread: textbook buying. Textbook buying season means lines out the door of the campus bookstore and stacks of overpriced textbooks, and if your experience was anything like mine, current and former college students, it tried both your patience and your bank account.
Which is why at Technapex we’re always excited to hear about companies who are working to make free educational content accessible to students. Last week, we spoke with Ariel Diaz, co-founder and CEO of Boundless, a start-up that touts itself as “the free textbook replacement.” The company has already received $9 million in investor funding, and aims to provide an alternative to traditional textbooks by allowing students to access customized and open educational content any time, from any device.
Diaz explained to us how the program works: students register on the site for whatever course they’re taking, be it Psych 101, Intro to Econ, etc. Boundless compiles all relevant open educational materials for that subject from a large library of OERs. The information is then organized into chapters that are tailored specifically to the course the student is taking. The result is similar to that of a textbook, but not completely: “We take a very modular approach to the content. It’s less about creating a particular book from start to finish and more about presenting the modules around a given subject. Then we can address them in the order a student needs them,” said Diaz.
Students can access the materials online from any computer or tablet. Boundless even breaks down the material into easily-digestible SmartNotes, outlines that provide a simple study layout. “It’s about helping students study more efficiently and providing material so that it’s convenient,” said Diaz.
What’s appealing about Boundless for students is that it’s all free, a fact that Diaz remained adamant about. “Our goal is to create a sustainable, for-profit business,” he said. “But right now we’re making sure we’re building a great learning experience for students, so the content will remain free.” The site just launched publicly in August after a year-long beta program used at over 1,000 universites. Since the public launch, the reception has been great, said Diaz. “We’ve even had high school teachers and students reach out looking for introductory college material for AP classes, which was unexpected.”
Boundless’ material is all licensed educational content taken from various online repositories. Boundless then curates and improves upon the material, distilling the content to make it easier for students to consume. The material comes from a variety of different open education websites, including OER Commons, government sites, Wikipedia, the National Institute of Health, Encyclopedia of Earth, and more. With the accumulation of all this material, Boundless has been able to create an offering of eight different subjects, including biology, business, econ, sociology, psychology, writing, history, and anatomy and physiology.
While Boundless’ offerings are extremely convenient for students, the company still has some tough competitors to face: traditional textbooks are long-established university tools, so while disrupting that system is certainly possible, it’s going to present challenges. One challenge is the fact that many professors structure their classes around the textbooks they have their students buy. We asked Diaz: for classes like those, do you expect students not to use their textbooks? Can Boundless be used in lieu of them?
“In early users, we see a lot of people using Boundless in addition to the textbook,” said Diaz. “Boundless can be a replacement, but we see both.”
It may take awhile for professors to jump off the textbook train, but Boundless isn’t interested in marketing to professors — rather, they market to students.
“We’re building a company that’s focused on students,” said Diaz. “The challenge with textbooks, and the reason that they’re poor products, is because they’re not built for students, the users. And they’re not priced for the users. They’re priced, built, designed, and sold for professors and then forced upon students . Students are forced to pay for these products that are expensive. We want to make sure the student is our customer so we can focus on them and make sure they’re at the center of our development line.”
Boundless’ focus on students and their mission of making educational materials free and accessible is admirable, but they’ve recently found themselves in a legal battle with the very companies they’re up against — textbook publishers; specifically, Cengage, McMillan, and Pearson. The three companies who filed the lawsuit last spring accused Boundless of violating their copyrights by copying “the distinctive selection, arrangement and presentation” of their textbooks.
Diaz seems to remain unfazed about the lawsuit, however. While he couldn’t discuss the legal battle in depth as it’s still ongoing, he did comment briefly: “The lawsuit was meant to stifle innovation and hinder an upcoming startup. It was purely business motivated. Our job is to continue innovating.” In the six months since the lawsuit, the company has launched their public site, has come out with newly expanded content, and will continue to do so throughout the semester. “We’ve got some exciting features coming out,” said Diaz. “Right now, we’re just focusing on creating a great study experience for students.”
Hopefully, companies like Boundless will be the pioneers in the eventual disruption of the current textbook system. Making educational materials completely open and free to all students should be a reality, and not one for the far-off future, either. We’ll certainly keep an eye on Boundless and their mission to provide OERs for students, as the story will definitely be one for the books — in the form of free online books that are open to all, of course.
What are your thoughts on the current textbook system? What do you think about what Boundless is doing? Share your opinion in the comments below, or with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.