Students are always strapped for cash. Textbooks cost a bundle. Some schools are now renting textbooks to students who cannot afford to buy new and/or for whom used texts are unavailable. Many students hope to get by without buying the textbook. But that can be a risky option.
Three entrepreneurs decided to solve this dilemma by creating a company that produces open-sourced, online textbooks matched to a popular textbook in a particular subject that students can access for free. Free!! How do they do that? Well, with a major venture capital investment and a lot of contracted consultants, including me.
I worked on the college Biology textbook: mapping content, validating the content others mapped, and synthesizing the content of still other consultants into cohesive chapters that covered the same topics in the same order as in the chapters of the reference Biology textbook. We consultants scoured the web for the best open-source materials on a particular topic. The end result is an interactive text with graphics and video clips embedded within the text. It looks great and functions well. And it’s free. Boundless Learning also has free textbooks for college Economics and Psychology. They plan to produce free textbooks for more subjects in future months.
I was involved, in one way or another, in the creation of about 40% of the chapters. So, believe me when I say, “This was a huge endeavor.” Student-user input will be used to tweak and modify the text for an even better learning experience. Is this the future of textbooks? Maybe, for a subset of the most commonly-used texts; but probably not for the vast majority of textbooks for at least two reasons: it is not that easy to re-create a textbook using open source material; and professors are unlikely to willingly give up both the prestige and revenue stream of writing and publishing textbooks.
What is this firm that is creating these free textbooks? Boundless Learning was founded in March, 2011, in Boston, MA by three serial entrepreneur friends (Aaron White, Ariel Diaz, and Brian Balfour) with venture capital funding of $1.75 million. While their track record as entrepreneurs and knowledge of funding sources surely played a large role in obtaining those funds, improving education and educational products is very ‘sexy’ right now. Bill Gates invests millions in schemes to improve education. Peter Thiel (of PayPal) has his own take on higher education: skip it and start a business. He is providing fellowships to 20 young entrepreneurs under age 20.
Anyone who pays attention knows that education does need an overhaul, so the Boundless Learning Trio made a smart decision to move into this potentially lucrative field; which makes it intriguing that they are giving away their product. Their ultimate goal appears to be to hook students with the free textbooks, and then to later offer premium services that will include ‘online tutoring, prep test help, and premium study aids.’ This is smart marketing, but will their funding carry them through until they are profitable? This seems doubtful, so I presume they are looking for more funding from their original investors and from new investors.
Another concern is over how they will differentiate their premium products from those already offered by the Princeton Review or Kaplan, among many others. How is the Boundless Learning team going to shake up the market for online tutoring and test prep? And are those really the premium services they should offer? In a phone conversation I had with Arial Diaz on October 18, 2011, I asked him about the viability of the premium services Boundless Learning is thinking about offering. He admitted that even though students do have plenty of disposable income for pizza and movies, it may be difficult to turn free textbook users into paying customers. Currently, only about 10% of those students who downloaded a textbook use it once a week or more. At least 50% of the students appear to use it only to study for exams. This is a major hurdle the team will have to overcome if they want to move these students into premium products. Students may not know what they really need to succeed. Tutoring and test prep have their place, but if Boundless Learning really wants to be on the cutting edge of an educational revolution, the team needs to think beyond the typical products.
According to Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders want employees who demonstrate Seven Survival Skills:
• Critical thinking and problem solving
• Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
• Agility and adaptability
• Initiative and entrepreneurialism
• Effective oral and written communication
• Accessing and analyzing information
• Curiosity and imagination
Perhaps Boundless Learning could really differentiate itself from the pack by developing premium services that aid students in achieving those Seven Survival Skills. I suggested to Ariel that his team develop a game that increases critical thinking skills and offers a certificate of achievement for reaching the highest levels. If they could get support for such a product from major businesses who recruit on campuses, this would encourage students to play the game so that they could show the certificate to recruiters. Developing products and services which offer students the opportunity to increase their Seven Survival Skills may be a more difficult task than offering online tutoring and test prep services, but it would be more exciting, cutting edge, and a potentially huge game-changer in education.