Can Boundless finally end the paper textbook?

It’s 2013. Ebooks have been around since  1971.  Yet tens of millions of students in kindergarten through college are still hauling around piles of heavy, quickly outdated paper textbooks that cost anywhere from $30-$200 per subject, per student.

Open educational resources provide a free digital alternative to traditional books. Boundless, a startup that’s two and a half years old, offers students an easier way to find and access these materials. Boundless has organized free digital resources aligned to popular textbooks in 21 common subjects. Students just have to look up the ISBN of their assigned book, and instead of paying $100-$200 they pay $19.99 to access equivalent material plus interactive study aids like flashcards and quizzes from their tablet, smartphone and laptop. Two million students use the platform each month, at the high school and college level.

Today, Boundless is launching a set of tools to speed adoption by educators. The Boundless Teaching Platform is free for teachers. They can customize content by chapter or section, assembling virtual “packets” for their students, and access a set of features such as assigning readings or quizzes and monitoring students’ progress, or creating presentations with shareable content. 

There are a lot of new and old companies offering new takes on textbooks, from digital versions to renting used books, but Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of Boundless, says that most of his competitors are still pegged to the old business model, preventing real change for students. 

“The structure of the market doesn’t allow for much innovation. It’s a traditional oligopoly–the top five publishers have 80% of the market and control the distribution.”

Most of the new startups, like Kno, Inkling, Chegg, or Benchprep, are licensing content from the big publishers, so price points remain high–$80-$100 for an ebook, say. Flatworld Knowledge, a startup that initially offered free books under open license, abandoned the openness in favor of traditional copyright and a $19.99 price point. Boundless’s relationship to the market incumbents is clear: The startup is currently fighting a lawsuit alleging “copyright violation, unfair competition and false advertising,” by three of the big five textbook publishers.

On the other hand, in the “open” category alongside Boundless, Lumen Learning offers consulting services to districts to help them adopt open materials, and the Saylor Foundation and CK-12 offer free and open educational resources for K-12 teachers to adopt.

“We haven’t seen a lot of product innovation in the textbook world,” Diaz says. “But I do believe we’re on the cusp of it.”

In order for free and open digital textbooks to really penetrate the K-12 market, some serious public policy change is needed. The public school textbook and materials market was estimated at $5.5 billion in 2010, the second-largest category in publishing after general trade books. But 90% of the books are bought using taxpayer money through the lengthy and bureaucratic procurement process, as opposed to higher ed where textbook adoption is up to the professor.  Some innovative K-12 teachers may already have the wherewithal to do an end run around the traditional textbook, and startups like Boundless will make this easier. But the long term solution will require public initiatives like those in Utah, California, Florida and elsewhere to promote, and perhaps even require the use of open textbooks.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON December 5, 2013

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