Amid Edtech Trends, Boundless Rolls Out Paid Content and Tools

8/6/13Follow @gthuang

For those of you wondering what the future of online education looks like for students, well, a lot of Boston-area companies are working on that.

One of them, Boundless, has been focusing on college kids and their study needs. More specifically: out with the textbooks, and in with the free course materials on the Web.

For its efforts, Boundless has earned the attention of about 1 million students a month accessing its Web content—and a copyright lawsuit from three textbook publishers, filed last year, which might be settled soon.

But Boundless is trying to make money, too. Today it’s announcing a premium offering of what it calls “textbook alternatives” for $19.99 each, spanning 20-plus subjects (now including calculus, physics, and statistics) and available on the Web and as mobile apps.

The startup still offers free materials, but what’s interesting here is what the paid products look like. The idea, says Boundless CEO Ariel Diaz, is to create a “personal tutor built into the product” that helps explain the content, customize it, motivate students, give them deadlines, and assess their progress.

The underlying technology is adaptive learning software based on neuroscience and the study habits of its existing users. “We track everything a student does,” Diaz says. “We can basically create a holistic view of what a student knows, what they should know, where the gaps are, and using an automated notification and reminder system, ping them and say, ‘Based on what you already know well, here’s a set of 30 terms you should know—we recommend a five-minute study session.’”

The goal, he says, is to make studying “more efficient and much less stressful.” Easier said than done, of course. But if Boundless can show that its users learn more effectively and get better grades than when they use traditional methods—an initial study done by two cognitive neuroscientists supports this claim, Diaz says—the company will be in business.

All of this means Boundless is looking to make money for the first time. By offering paid study tools and course content directly to students, the company is trying to lay a new foundation for how to get a college education—and pay for parts of it.

“This type of content opportunity can support innovations across other channels, whether it’s MOOCs [massive open online courses] or traditional textbooks,” Diaz says.

I asked Diaz how Boundless fits with the MOOC phenomenon, which has started to go mainstream (see edX president Anant Agarwal on The Colbert Report). “Both of us are in very rapid exploration mode,” he says. “Our goal is to start from the student. What content and tools do they need? Education as a whole can use innovation from all angles.”

As Diaz points out, many different approaches are being tried. MOOCs use video lectures that can be sped up or slowed down and reviewed at each student’s own pace. Peer-review and automated grading are interesting new assessment tools. Education forums and social learning methods are in early stages.

“What a MOOC doesn’t do is proactively recommend different kinds of content,” Diaz says. “A MOOC will say, ‘Here’s the lecture and readings, and here’s the assignment.’ It’s about scaling up from 200 students to 200,000, but the structure is similar.” Other problems with online courses include motivating students to finish their studies and be accountable, and how the business models will shake out.

Boundless may face similar challenges in the end, but Diaz thinks he has nailed down a key piece of the future of edtech.

“Once people try it, they really love it,” he says. “We have to convey it to students.”

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. Follow @gthuang

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  • Don Gorges

    __I expect Students understand this is much more than a price-point issue. First year College & University Students can’t afford to regret not choosing to use their Professor’s Textbook choices. To avoid the regret of having made a poor decision, it’s good advice to ask Students to review & compare Faculty recommended textbook options to judge the quality of materials for themselves, while considering that one places a high value on the quality of time invested in studying. Boundless website could help them with their decisions while supporting claims that “Boundless is better than your assigned textbook” by comparing screen-shots of all key pages from all Boundless Alternative Textbooks next to pages from the University’s Assigned Textbooks.