Boundless Goes Freemium: Too Late?

Boundless, known for providing free textbooks to college students, will start charging $20 for textbooks bundled with study tools.

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

August 6, 2013

4 Min Read

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Boundless, a provider of free textbooks, will now charge for some versions of its textbooks as it moves into a new stage of its business.

The Boston-based startup started out taking open education resources and offering free online textbooks that were matched to the chapter structure of best-selling college textbooks. It will still offer these 'aligned' texts, but they will now be part of a $19.99 bundle that also includes integrated flash cards and quizzes. Boundless texts will remain free in their basic formats as ebooks or PDFs. While the company is facing legal action from large college textbook publishers for its products, Boundless maintains that the suit is baseless because its product offering has changed.

In addition to its plan to charge for versions of its texts that use tutorial features or that can be aligned, Tuesday's announcement includes several additional new developments:

-- Boundless will add three new subjects -- calculus, physics and statistics -- bringing its total to 21.

-- It will now be available as a native iOS app on the iPhone (iPad support is still under development).

-- Boundless texts will now be available for free on iBooks.

[ Udacity's project-based approach to online learning could be a game-changer. Read Udacity: Creating A More Engaging MOOC. ]

Watching how students used its texts motivated Boundless to beef up its study helpers. "One thing we've learned over the last two years is that students aren't very good studiers," said Ariel Diaz, co-founder and CEO of Boundless. "They'll do what we call study theatre: go to the library and read, and re-read, and make notes."

This, said Diaz, is not an effective way to study, so the company developed two methods to improve students' retention. One is a technique called spaced repetition: create assessments of how difficult it is to memorize information on flash cards, and then nudge the student a few days later to go over weak areas and see what they remember.

The second method makes it harder for students to skip the built-in quizzes Boundless offers within texts. After discovering that only 5% of students were taking the quizzes, the company started displaying quizzes in a full-screen page at the end of a section. According to Diaz, 50% percent of students now take the quizzes as a result of the change.

While impressed by this improvement, Eric Weil, managing partner at StudentMonitor, a Ridgewood, N.J.-based market researcher focused on college students, said the Boundless announcements amount to little more than catching up to traditional textbook publishers, many of which already offer similar tutorial features.

Meanwhile, the market for e-textbooks remains small. According to StudentMonitor's spring 2013 survey, 59% of students still buy new printed textbooks and only 14% use digital or e-textbooks.

Another observer said Boundless' features may be too little, too late. "Boundless is not going to be able to compete in the big leagues with the likes of Pearson and some of the large commercial publishers," said Sanford Forte, executive director of the California Open Source Textbook Project, an education consultancy. Forte explained that the big publishers are not selling just content with tutorials and assessment, but full-scale learning management systems. Those systems allow for adaptive learning techniques, such as creating real-time assessments that let students test out of chunks of courses and take only the parts they need. "The game is going beyond the world of content," Forte said.

But Carl Kuzmich, senior consultant, learning design and technology at the University of Southern California's Center for Scholarly Technology, countered that he's glad Boundless is pushing forward. He likes having an alternative to traditional publishers, who are increasingly using technology like learning platforms to try to lock universities into all their offerings.

The features [offered by Boundless] are good for students, he said. "As a student, I'd much rather test myself than approach my instructor because I wouldn't want the instructor to think I'm stupid," Kuzmich said. He also pointed out that students appreciate being able to test themselves at any time of day and track their progress.

And Boundless is growing, according to Diaz, with its texts used by more than a million students a month on about half of the nation's 4,000 college campuses. He expects that many students will pay $20 for what was once free. "Students know there's value in educational content. They just don't feel that $100 or more is a fair price."

About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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