Boundless, Battling Big Publishers, Rolls Out New Site to Replace Textbooks

8/8/12Follow @gthuang

A scrappy ed-tech startup from Boston is emerging today with a new website, new content, and a new resolve to fight the powers that be. Boundless Learning, which started in early 2011, has redesigned its free, open educational content platform for college students, in its public launch just ahead of the new school year.

Boundless has been doing some learning of its own over the past year and a half. (In fact, “learning” is so redundant that the company has dropped it from its name.) It has learned that there is a big market for a free, Web-based alternative to textbooks. It has learned how to present content in a way that’s easier to consume on a laptop or tablet. And it has learned that making a few enemies along the way is OK.

Those enemies come in the form of three big textbook publishers—Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan Higher Education)—that have filed a federal lawsuit against Boundless alleging copyright infringement. That was back in March, and as these cases usually go, not a lot has happened yet. In late June, Boundless filed a motion to dismiss two secondary claims in the suit having to do with unfair competition and false advertising. The goal, Boundless says, is to focus on the primary issue—copyright infringement—where the startup is confident it will prevail.

Boundless plans to file an official legal response to the lawsuit after its motion is resolved (possibly this month). Not surprisingly, the company views the suit as a business tactic used by the entrenched powers to delay and distract those who are trying to innovate. “They’re trying to protect the profit margin on this dying business,” says Boundless co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz. “Textbook publishers are trying to build bigger levees instead of building a houseboat. They’re just setting themselves up for massive chaos.”

But enough about the legal stuff (for now). What’s also interesting about Boundless is its progress in the rapidly moving field of ed-tech. Its new site looks cleaner and easier to read and navigate (see left), at least to this reporter’s eye. Boundless now also offers materials for introductory courses in history, sociology, physiology, and writing—beyond its original subjects of biology, psychology, and economics.

Students can go to the site, type in their assigned course textbook, and if there’s a match, Boundless will present alternative course materials. The text and images come from open educational resources, U.S. government sites (such as NIH and NSF), and independent sites that use Creative Commons licenses (like Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Earth).

“We don’t create content, we curate,” says Diaz.

Also new on the site are design features intended to make it easier to do things like see where you are among various units of content (via a sidebar); jump to pieces of content you are looking for (via search and a table of contents); and keep tabs on your progress and note-taking (via a Facebook-like activity feed). Boundless is also working on social features to take advantage of the peer-to-peer learning aspect of the community it is trying to build.

All of this points to a future beyond traditional textbooks—though the transition will probably take years. “Our view is much more modular, much more sharable,” says Diaz. Physical textbooks are constrained by their weight and linear design, he says, and the first wave of e-textbooks are just digital representations of the same thing. But by using open Web materials, he says, “you can go as deep as you want, go as broad as you want, and we can surface the right information at the right time.”

Having the right level of interactivity seems to be important too. As it matures, Boundless will have to figure out how best to serve different types of learners. But its basic approach is to make a wide range of content available in bite-size chunks (see left)—something textbooks can’t really do. “It’s open, it’s a better product, and it’s way more social,” Diaz says.

Boundless has raised a little less than $10 million from investors including Venrock, NextView Ventures, Founder Collective, Kepha Partners, and SV Angel. The company has 15 employees and says its software is being used by students at more than a thousand schools. For now Boundless isn’t talking about its revenue model, but it’s probably safe to say it will be some sort of freemium arrangement, with content remaining free and open for students.

And, of course, the plan is eventually to reach all 20 million college kids in the U.S. “Our goal is to change how every single student learns and studies,” Diaz says. “If we can dramatically reduce the cost of content while improving the quality, that’s relevant to everyone.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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