Despite lawsuit, Boundless takes on publishers with $19.99 interactive open-source textbook


For more than a year, Boston-based Boundless has been mired in a lawsuit with some of the textbook world’s biggest giants. But that hasn’t stopped the startup from continuing to be a disruptive thorn in the industry’s side.

The company, which uses open-source content to create college-level digital textbooks with material similar to the books students are assigned, says it reaches a million students a month and offers content for 21 subjects. On Tuesday, Boundless launched its first paid product: a $19.99 “textbook alternative” that doesn’t just provide content but gives students a structured process for learning it.

“Most students aren’t good [at studying],” said CEO and co-founder Ariel Diaz. “They do things that feel like studying, like going to the library and using a highlighter. But that might not be the most effective way to learn.”

To help students actually absorb the content, he said, Boundless’ textbooks draw from learning science and give students a guided path for learning. Much like a tutor walks her pupil through material, stopping along the way to prod him for recall or remind him of older lessons, Boundless measures when a student is likely to forget something and serves up a timely flashcard or quiz. The technique, known as spaced repetition, has been proven in studies to help commit content to memory, Diaz said.

The company, which also launched its first native apps for iOS on Tuesday, said it will continue to offer a less interactive digital textbook in each of its subject areas for free.

Given the size of the textbook market, which is estimated to be about $8 billion, it’s little wonder that everyone from tech giants like Apple and Google to startups Kno, Inkling and Benchprep want a piece of it. But Boundless’s interesting and cost-saving twist is that it gets its content from free Open Educational Resources (OER), which means it doesn’t have to share revenue with publishers or pay licensing fees.

Still, it faces a bit of an uphill battle proving to students who have likely never heard of the company or OER content that its digital textbooks can stack up against more expensive and static titles from well-known publishers. And it’s not alone in providing students “smart” textbooks. Publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill education, as well as startups like Benchprep and Kno, market digital textbooks that include enhancements like interactivity, personalization and student progress tracking for teachers.

In April of 2012, on same day it announced an $8 million funding round, Boundless revealed that it had been sued by Pearson, Cengage and Macmillan Higher Education.  The lawsuit alleged several violations, including copyright infringement, unfair competition and false advertising. While Diaz said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, he said Boundless is in the midst of mediation with the publishers.

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