If the lawsuit by textbook publishers has slowed Boundless down at all, they’re not letting it show. The digital textbook startup today came out of beta with the release of its new product. That means, starting today, anyone can sign up to access its free, sleek new textbook offerings in Psychology, Economics, Biology, Sociology, American History, Writing, and Anatomy & Physiology.
Boundless CEO Ariel Diaz walked me through the new product last week, and with an HTML5 design with tablet optimization, it is sleek. In particular, the team has put a lot of emphasis on context. That means no matter what content you’re viewing, you can’t lose track of where you are in the textbook, which is divided not only by chapters but by sections.
In addition to a new look and some new features, most of the content is new as the beta included only Econ, Psych, and Bio.
To creates its textbooks, Boundless pulls from a variety of openly licensed quality data sources including government websites, Wikipedia, and existing open education resources. (For those wondering, there is a verification step, so Wikipedia content is vetted along with everything else before it makes it into the product.)
How exactly they do this they won’t say (and is the subject of the suit), but the result is a selection of offerings that match existing texts. That means that if you’re taking Intro to Economics and you’re assigned Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw’s introductory text, Boundless lets you select a version of its own textbooks that closely matches Mankiw’s.
But while the beta product offered only textbooks that matched existing works, the new Boundless product offers a comprehensive textbook in each discipline of the company’s own design. Each one aims to be a “canon” of the discipline, or a superset of existing introductory textbooks. Though student users will continue to have access to versions that match existing textbooks, other users will be able to access just the Boundless version.
Unlike some digital textbook companies, Boundless has no plans to offer printouts of its texts.
“We don’t believe paper is the right experience,” Diaz told me. And on that, I agree. The Boundless text offers search functionality — a key asset for students — as well as an activity feed to help track what users have already viewed. (It’s easy to imagine how this could be helpful in a more social context in future iterations; imagine tracking your progress on a reading assignment against the rest of your class.)
Boundless won’t say much about its user base, except that they’ve reached over 1,000 schools in beta. The company raised $8 million in April.
As if all of this isn’t cool enough, where Boundless is going is more interesting still. One of the big lessons the company took from its beta is that — wait for it — students love bullet points. So the next iteration of the process will offer more “compact” versions of content. That might seem like a minor feature, but it’s really a reimagining of content and, as such, relevant beyond textbooks.
Imagine coming to a topic like, say, the American Revolution and being able to choose whether you get the content in a paragraph, a page, 10 pages, or a full book. That kind of compression is the future at Boundless, and it has the potential to revolutionize how content is produced. It’s already something we value in our media; we’re just really inefficient at it and pay writers to re-write at different lengths.
I’m bullish on Boundless because they’re building a product that’s designed to incrementally change education, and yet they hold a potentially transformative vision for educational content. While startups like Coursera and Udacity are reinventing the whole model, Boundless is reinventing just a piece, and presenting it in a format that allows students and professors to embrace it without changing much else. But while hewing to some aspects of the traditional textbook model is wise for now, it’s clear that Boundless is capable of fully reimagining how we learn.