Boundless Learning Raises $8 Million to Make Expensive College Textbooks Free

By Erin Griffith , written on April 5, 2012

From The News Desk

Let me get this out of the way: Boundless Learning, a Boston-based startup, just raised $8 million from Venrock, bringing the company's total funding to just under $10 million.

Okay, onto the juicy stuff.

In our earliest days, Pando went a little crazy covering books. Amid the flurry of posts, I noticed a long-overdue disruption finally creeping its way into the textbook market. Companies like Inkling and Chegg were working to digitize the existing market in ways that seem commercially viable. Then I came across Boundless Learning, which looked downright revolutionary.

The company's website declared "100% Free Textbook Replacement," claiming its beta product, essentially a free textbook hacking tool, had helped students at 1000+ universities save almost half a million dollars and perform better in their classes.

Boundless Learning's algorithm recreates the content of thousands of textbooks culled from free sources of information like Wikipedia, government sources and creative commons-licensed material. Curious, I signed up as an Alaska Bible College student, typed in Biology 101, chose the book from a few options, and boom -- Boundless created an online "replacement," culled from existing, free resources. Same information, the site claims, just different wording.

This is amazing, slightly insane, and totally doomed, I thought.

If there's any industry willing to quash innovation and progress to save its stodgy existence, it's book publishing. The textbook industry is basically an oligopoly where four publishers control 80% of the market. They've been accused of using questionable sales tactics and driving up costs: Textbook prices have increased at three times inflation for the last 30 years, topped only by tobacco, health care, and tuition.

In fact, the Higher Education Opportunities Act was signed in 2008 to make the textbook market fairer to students. Publishers are now required to disclose prices and changes to new editions, and offer unbundled versions of their packages. The New York Times even compared the moral hazard between textbook companies and professors to that of pharmaceutical companies and doctors. Cushy junkets for professors and school administrators further the comparison.

From the student side, no one would argue that college textbooks are anything less than a rip-off. Who doesn't remember how brutal it was, as a broke college kid, to shell out $150 for a book the professor only ended up assigning few chapters out of? It's a racket.

So naturally, three of the big four publishers sent Boundless a complaint alleging copyright infringement. Since none of the stuff that Boundless includes in its "replacements" is copyright protected, the company plans to defend itself, founder and CEO Ariel Diaz told me.

But I did notice that since my first look at the site, Boundless Learning has steered its messaging away from the phrase "textbook replacement."

Now the company touts its ability to help students "save money, study faster and ace the class." From the nosing around I did last night, the company still offers what can basically be classified as textbook replacement. It's just called "alignment" instead, and makes clear that their ebook isn't exactly the same as the book you've been assigned.

But it's free, and it seems like a totally viable alternative to many expensive textbooks. Part of the message shift, Diaz said, is based on the feedback he's received since the private beta launched last fall. "Students aren't excited by textbooks, so we won't want to be viewed as just a textbook. We want to be viewed as useful," he said.

Part of that focus now is on delivery and "key concepts" study guides that come with the text. It doesn't hurt that the information is offered in a really, nice clean interface. There's also a highlighting function, page number and search guides, bookmarks, and best of all, every piece of information links back out to the source, be it Wikipedia or creative commons-licensed material. Boundless is not a publisher, it's an organizer of existing resources.

The company works in line with the principles of Open Educational Resources community, an organization that runs a database of Creative Commons-licensed educational material to help educators and students find open, free resources. OER itself already offers full university courses, readings, lecture videos, notes, and homework assignments.

I really hope Big Textbook (ha) doesn't find a way to kill this thing. It would be a classic story of the smart, sharing-friendly idealists fighting the incumbent, backward powers-that-be. (Not to mention the kind of story The Muppets producers would love and Fox News would call Communist.)

But I have faith in the company's founders, none of which are first-timers: Diaz founded of YouCastr, CTO Aaron White built, and, and Brian Balfour co-founded of Viximo. (They have personal ties to the industry, as well. All three have a teacher parent and/or sibling.)

The VC community believes in free and open information sharing, too: Boundless had already secured $1.7 million in backing from SV Angel, Founder Collective, Nextview Ventures and Kepha Partners. Today the company announced it raised $8 million, led by Venrock.

"The revolution is going to happen one way or another, and the future of education won't be textbooks any way you slice it," Diaz said.