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Higher Learning Or Another Napster? Boston Startup Crafts Free Online Textbooks

This article is more than 10 years old.

College freshmen have a lot to learn. And not just when they're being taught in the classroom.

When Alayna Eberhart was a freshman at Boston University, she used to buy every single textbook she was assigned.

"They’re expensive!" Eberhart realized quickly. Now, the college junior waits a few weeks each semester to see if she really needs the textbook. Often, she finds she doesn’t. And even when she does buy it, she doesn’t always use it.

"Last semester, I was in a political science class and I would make notes about stuff I needed to learn more about," Eberhart explained. "And I would just look it up online, rather than in the textbook. It’s easier."

Easier. Better. More student-focused. That's what textbooks need to be, according Ariel Diaz, co-founder of a Boston higher education startup called Boundless.

"Students complain about textbooks because they’re overpriced for what they get," Diaz said. "The products aren’t good learning tools. They’re not up to speed with what [students] are used to with their iPhones and their iPads. They’re static, antiquated products that are sold at these incredibly premium prices."

Boundless offers virtual textbooks online for free. Here's how it works.

Say your professor assigns the sixth edition of Principles of Macroeconomics. It’s a classic textbook written by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw. Amazon charges $165.

Boundless creates a virtual edition of the textbook, from open-source content. If you’re assigned to read Chapter 1 about trade, Boundless’ online book contains the very same lessons about trade, but the information might be coming from Wikipedia.

Boundless co-founder Aaron White says quality, third-party content is exploding online, and it's going change education forever.

"The same way we talk about no one’s going to buy encyclopedias, now that we’ve got a resource as broad as Wikipedia," White said, "the same thing is going to happen in the textbook content world."

Not so fast, say the textbook publishers.

"Boundless is engaged in old-fashioned copyright theft," said Matt Oppenheim, an attorney representing three publishers that are suing Boundless. Two of the them, Pearson and Cengage, have offices in Boston. Oppenheim accuses Boundless of copying not just the skeleton of the book, but paraphrasing the content of it. Even the pictures. Take Campbell Biology, he says, perhaps the most widely used textbook ever.

"Well if you turn to the first page of the ninth edition of this textbook, you find on it two photos," Oppenheim explained. "And those are photos of a mother-of-pearl plant. Different types of photos of them.

Boston startup Boundless has created free virtual textbooks online, right, to substitute for commonly assigned, expensive texts such as Campell Biology, left. (Click to enlarge.)
Boston startup Boundless has created free virtual textbooks online, right, to substitute for commonly assigned, expensive texts such as Campell Biology, left. (Click to enlarge.)

"Well, if you go to Boundless' version of the Campbell textbook, and you look at their page one, lo and behold, there are two photographs of a mother-of-pearl plant. And so, that’s what we call photographic paraphrasing."

Oppenheim says unless Boundless wants to write its own textbooks from scratch, the company is going to have to answer to the publishers in court.

But Boundless' co-founders say the lawsuit is without merit. And it didn't stop the them from raising another $8 million in venture capital funding, partly to defend the company against the publishers' lawsuit.

"It clearly shows where their line is drawn," Diaz said. He says copyright law does not cover facts, and that textbooks deliver facts. Diaz says the textbook publishers are just trying to protect their profits.

Boundless is a for-profit company, just like the textbook publishers the Boston Leather District startup is taking on. But Boundless doesn't see itself as a textbook company. It sees itself as a higher learning facilitator. Boundless offers virtual textbooks for free. But the startup is also developing add-on learning tools for which students would have to pay extra.

Who’s going to win in court? It's hard to say, says Eric Bassett, an analyst at Eduventures, a Boston education research firm.

"Boundless is part of a large and growing movement in education," Bassett said, warning that more such tensions are likely to come in the field. Improving computer technologies and the fast-growing amount of online content are enabling new ways to teach students. Bassett says the power is shifting away from traditional content providers.

"Rather than to say: 'This is quality content. We put our seal of approval on it, we verify this.' It’s much more: What does the student choose to learn?"

Bassett thinks this trend promises to make education more widely accessible and affordable.

Whether students will actually learn better? Bassett says that's a test that is only just getting under way.

This program aired on October 3, 2012.

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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