Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 15:02
Boundless Learning, a Boston-based startup company that offers students digital textbooks at no cost, has seen consistent growth in membership since its arrival on campus last semester.
Over 300 students have signed up for the free service since the beginning of the semester, according to Boundless Campus Marketing Manager John Kwon. Boundless experts generate digital versions of textbooks assigned to university classes by compiling information available publicly under Creative Common licenses.
“All of our online stuff is tailored to the assigned textbook in your class,” Kwon, a junior, said. “It would cover the exact same concepts in your textbook in the exact same order,” he said. “It is just a way easier, more effective and cheaper alternative.”
As long as sources are cited, the information can be used without running the risk of plagiarism, according to Vice President of Marketing Healy Jones.
“We use information that has been created by the government and research institutions and even Wikipedia to create textbooks that are available in digital format completely for free,” Jones said.
The Boundless website currently offers textbooks on 18 basic college subjects including microbiology, art history and accounting. The company also offers textbooks for specific classes at participating universities.
Educators can also provide Boundless with their course syllabi, and Boundless will align the content of the textbook to the course material. Professors can then send their students links to their tailored online Boundless course.
Students who register are also able to create and use additional study tools such as flashcards, study guides and quizzes.
Tufts’ Boundless representatives have been posting flyers around campus, tabling at the Mayer Campus Center and making announcements at introductory level courses, according to Kwon.
The initial idea for Boundless was conceived in 2010, when Co-Founders Ariel Diaz and Aaron White realized how high the cost of college textbooks had risen, Jones said.
“The rate of inflation of textbook prices is I think three times the rate of general inflation,” Jones said. “The price of textbooks are increasing faster than [the price of] medical care.”
The company officially launched in 2011 in Boston area schools including Babson College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. It has since spread to over 2,000 colleges across the country reaching as far as the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, Jones said.
Jones noted that while the company has seen consistent growth since its inception, its development has not been without struggles.
Last April, three of the nation’s largest publishing companies — Pearson, Cengage Learning and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group — sued Boundless for copyright infringement, Jones said.
“All the content — we write it,” he said. “We have Ph.Ds., masters students, TAs, that are writing the content for us. We wouldn’t be working here if we weren’t confident that we aren’t actually plagiarizing.”
Aside from the legal battles, the startup has faced challenges convincing students that its textbooks are an alternative that won’t jeopardize their academic success, Kwon said.
“To be honest, I think at such an academically driven school like Tufts, if the professor says you need to get this textbook to get that ‘A,’ a lot of students will get that textbook no matter how expensive it is,” he said.
Professor of Biology Michael Romero teaches Biology and the American Social Contract, one of the 12 courses with a textbook alternative on the Tufts Boundless site. Romero is unsure if the material on the website would be an adequate replacement for the textbook he assigns.
“Over the years I have made a huge effort to use the actual figures from the textbook I select in my lectures,” he said.
Romero, who was unaware that an alternative to the assigned textbook was being offered on the Boundless site, said while the online textbook would have much of the necessary information, it may be lacking some of the diagrams he relies on as teaching tools.
“I don’t see any reason why the students in my class couldn’t get the information from the [digital] textbook,” he said. “My point is that my actual lecture really goes into detail using the figures from the textbook that I’ve assigned. And those cannot be copied.”
Boundless recognizes that although it may not function as a comprehensive alternative to assigned textbooks, it can serve as an extensive study guide, Kwon said.
The company does not charge users any fee and is currently operating using the $10 million that the company raised as a startup foundation, Jones said. In the future, Boundless may consider offering tutoring services to generate profit, according to Jones. The company has also been approached by a number of academic institutions considering hiring Boundless to create textbooks that they would provide their students for free.
“We’re not making money right now,” Jones said. “We’re just trying to make really great content and get it in the hands of students.”