Free digital textbooks surge in popularity

Boundless offers students digital textbooks with reputable content—free of charge.

As college textbook prices continue to climb, a free alternative to traditional textbooks has gathered steam—and its provider claims that students at more than half of U.S. colleges are taking advantage.

Publicly launched this past August, Boundless produces digital textbooks consisting of reliable, open-licensed online content to match students’ reading material in at least 18 subject areas. Boundless primarily uses academic material from reputable sources such as open educational libraries, government resources, and other free learning sites.

Experts in multiple academic fields review gathered content and organize it into digital textbook selections that are structured based on a student’s needs. Students enter their assigned textbook title into Boundless’ website, and it locates comparable material for free, supplementing the text with visual graphics.

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“To make our products easy for students to use, we ask what textbook they’ve been assigned and we align our content based on [their needs] and assigned textbook chapters,” said Ariel Diaz, co-founder and CEO of Boundless.

(Next page: How Boundless has gained popularity—and how students are using the free digital textbooks)

Boundless digital textbooks are updated continually, which is another advantage over traditional textbook providers, Diaz said—which can take upwards of two years to release a new edition.

“We constantly update. One example is [that on] the night of the [2012] presidential election, we updated our module about the U.S. president that night—and we can update things in real time,” he said.

Another benefit is that “every module of content gives people an opportunity to give us feedback,” said Diaz. This user feedback is invaluable to Boundless, because it allows the company to constantly fine-tune its content and features, he added.

Boundless offers multiple customization tools for students to study more effectively. One of its most popular features is SmartNotes, an interactive tool that condenses a full textbook’s content into essential key points so that students can retain the most significant material. Another feature, called Interactive Notebook, allows students to highlight important words and phrases and add notes to personalize study sessions.

A feature called Instant Search helps students quickly locate key phrases, so they spend less time thumbing through pages and more time absorbing information. Other tools, such as flashcards, quizzes, and study guides, similarly help students in their studying efforts. All of these interactive, content-based features are available to students free of charge.

Diaz said these study features were the direct result of student input. “We’re very active about making sure that we’re talking to students on a regular basis,” he said. Boundless uses focus groups, surveys, and even gives students the chance to visit the Boundless office to test out product and feature prototypes.

“We respond immediately to help requests, [and] we take that feedback and use that to improve the product,” he said.

Diaz believes that professors are equally sensitive to the rising cost of higher education, and he said many have supported the company’s initiatives because lowering textbook costs could help increase national college enrollment.

“Open educational resources [have] been around for 10 to 15 years, but the onus is on the professors to say, ‘OK, I’m going to rebuild my curriculum around [those resources],’” he said. “We make it easier for them. In general, a lot of professors are sensitive to the needs of their students.”

Diaz claims that students at more than half of U.S. colleges have used Boundless digital textbooks. “We expect that number to continue to grow, as we’ve more than doubled the number of subjects that we offer and built a suite of features that go way beyond traditional textbooks,” he said. “Most importantly, 88 percent of students who used our textbooks last semester are likely to go [with] Boundless again, and 95 percent of our users achieved the grade they expected—or did better.”

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