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Knowledge knows no bounds. With Boundless Learning, neither do textbooks

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 23, 2012 06:06 PM

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boundless learning.pngBy Katie Lannan

Springtime cliches work a little differently on college campuses: The wide-eyed little ones stumbling away from their parents for the first time aren’t baby animals, but high school seniors visiting campus for accepted students events, and instead of tulips and daffodils blooming every few feet, the ubiquitous “CASH FOR BOOKS” vans pop up on every corner.

As the semester winds down, the quest to sell back pricey textbooks to campus bookstores, unofficial vendors, e-retailers, and underclassmen -- anyone who will offer even a few bucks back for a used, potentially outdated edition -- becomes a student’s priority. And then, when the next semester rolls around, a new student will have the privilege of paying a premium for that old book.

It’s a system that college students may be used to, but it’s one that doesn’t make sense to three Boston-area entrepreneurs who hope to revolutionize the textbook industry by embracing new technologies.

“Textbooks are sold to professors, not to students,” said Ariel Diaz, CEO of Boundless Learning. “The students are really the last ones that anyone is thinking about.”

Diaz, along with fellow startup veterans Brian Balfour and Aaron White, founded Boundless to create a free, digital alternative to textbooks, which works off of a curated collection of open educational resources that are already online.

“It's with you whenever you want, if that means 20 minutes of studying while waiting for a bus or a longer time with a traditional, laptop-based computing device,” Diaz said.

The Boundless team wanted to find a way to take advantage of technological innovations and make a product that students would be excited to use, Diaz said. Beyond the portability of a digital interface that’s compatible with tablets, smartphones, and computers, the product needed a social element as well. Boundless’ dashboard, which is similar to Facebook’s news feed, gives users the opportunity to see what classmates are reading and explore other areas of study.

Users can also interact with Boundless in ways that aren’t possible with traditional textbooks. The platform includes a search bar to help find key phrases, and highlighting text with your cursor lets you copy notes to a separate page for condensed viewing of important facts.

"It's kind of like a study guide that I’m creating in real time," Diaz said.

Still in its testing phases, Boundless had its soft launch last September. The company reports positive feedback: 92 percent of users said they would recommend the system to a friend, Diaz said, adding that the high percentage of satisfaction highlights the difference between Boundless and most existing e-textbook platforms, which students don’t enjoy using.

“Most of the current ones out there today are really just PDF versions of a traditional textbook,” he said. “You’re just reading a two-column page on a laptop screen, and it's an awkward experience.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about Boundless’ new product, however. Three major textbook publishing companies -- Macmillan, Cengage, and Pearson -- have come together to file a lawsuit against the company, alleging that Boundless “steals the creative expression of others, willfully and blatantly violating [the publishing companies’] intellectual property rights in several of their highest profile, signature textbooks.”

But Diaz said that Boundless uses only appropriately licensed content, culled from resources such as government websites, works that are in the public domain, and various open education resource repositories.

“On the surface, it's a copyright infringement suit,” he said. “We disagree. We don't believe that what they're alleging is true. You can't copyright facts or ideas. When you look at educational information, it is primarily facts and ideas.”

Diaz said that the Boundless team is preparing a full response to the lawsuit, but the legal action won’t impede product development.

The Boundless website puts the situation in terms that may be a little more relatable to its audience of college students.

“[W]henever there’s a great party, there are bound to be crashers,” reads a statement on the company’s blog. “Don’t worry -- we won’t let the fact that someone slipped a lawsuit in the punchbowl ruin our good time (we have a lot more punch).”

About Katie -- Currently a Brookline resident and BU senior, I grew up in New Hampshire, meaning I get confused when charged sales tax and can discuss at length the differences between multiple varieties of apples. At any given moment, I likely have my iPhone in my hand and at least one newspaper in my purse. I'm a political junkie, as well as an iced coffee addict. My interests include journalism, canvas sneakers, and pretending I'm in Ireland.

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