Transcript: Boundless Opens Up Textbooks

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Interview with Ariel Diaz, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Boundless

For podcast release Monday, November 23, 2015

KENNEALLY: When it comes to technology on campus or in schools, there really are only two things to know. You’re either lucky to be inside the classroom, or you’re on the outside praying to find a way in. Software, databases, and media technologies are every bit a part of the instructional kit today as books and study guides. In the competition for attention and implementation, though, what makes it inside the classroom is what changes results for students and instructors alike.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.

Educational publishers in 2015 recognize the need to build a digital platform that includes not only textbooks but also a variety of tools and other content. The sources for all that content can be proprietary and privately developed, as well as so-called open educational resources. As defined by the Open Educational Resources Commons, OER are teaching and learning materials that are freely available online for everyone to use, whether you are an instructor, student, or self-learner.

At Boston-based Boundless, technologists team with teachers to bring original OER materials to a wide audience. Boundless isn’t building a backlist of published texts so much as a community library. Ariel Diaz, founder and chief executive officer at Boundless, joins me now from his Seaport District office. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Ariel.

DIAZ: Thank you for having me.

KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to chatting with you. We have spoken with a number of publishers and others involved in the so-called open access movement in scientific publishing, and here’s another open movement to add to the list, open educational resources. That’s part of what you’re about at Boundless, but not all of it, and we look forward to learning about that.

Ariel Diaz is the founder and chief executive officer at Boundless. He’s an experienced entrepreneur with a passion for improving the educational landscape. Before forming Boundless, Ariel cofounded YouCastr, an online video platform that enabled hundreds of high schools to broadcast and sell live sports and other events to parents and communities. In addition, Ariel founded a consumer Web consulting company and worked in management consulting.

I’m looking forward to chatting with you, as I say, about Boundless. You are just back from a conference that looks at some of these issues, so-called Educause. I wonder if you can report for us what was the buzz of Educause this year?

DIAZ: Sure. It was a great conference. It’s one of the headliners in the education conference circuit throughout the year. This conference, one of the things that really struck me with all the conversations we had with our partners, with potential new customers, with some of our existing customers and clients who were there, was feeling a lot more that people are looking for digital alternatives to traditional textbooks.

The conversation, even one or two or three years ago, used to be that people were just starting to learn about it, just starting to think about what the alternatives are. But the tenor this year was much more about administrators and presidents of community colleges coming to us and saying, we’re thinking about this. We’re exploring the options. The faculty members are acutely aware of the cost. We have credits that cost a $100 for students, and the textbook may cost a $150, so this notion about thinking about digital alternatives as one, a way to address the cost problem in education, but also two, a way to address the student interest and study habits, and then three, a way to actually improve student outcomes.

The tenor has really changed from a mode of discovery around digital resources to one of starting to think through what it means to adopt them, which is super exciting.

KENNEALLY: It sounds like it. What’s interesting to me is about the results. That’s what parents care about. That’s what the students care about, too, is the results.

Do you have some idea of how digital curricula in its various forms – and again, this is not just textbooks but a variety of materials, video and workbooks and so forth – do you know about the impact they have when they get into the hands or into the devices of students?

DIAZ: Yes. There have been many studies done. We’re still in the early stages of doing true randomized controlled trials and other studies to compare digital resources to more traditional textbooks. One of the reasons is, you can’t just throw digital content and expect that to be the difference in and of itself. You have to think about the curriculum in a much more holistic way. You have to think about how you can start leveraging the power of digital in a way that you couldn’t before.

To be honest, we’re still on the early side of that. There’s a lot of exciting studies coming out. For example, one study that we did with a partner university of ours looked at the content of Boundless integrated with an adaptive learning platform that looks at how you can actually use the data and what students are doing to give them a different path through the content as well as through a more traditional assignment textbook approach. That study is ongoing now. We should have results in a few months, and many other studies are happening in parallel.

The exciting thing to realize is that with digital, you can enable things that physically were impossible in a traditional world such as collecting data and analytics on what students are doing and what they’re struggling, and having basically zero distribution cost, having much more control for educators to be able to customize and add their own content to the material.

You really start thinking about how you can leverage the power of digital, and that’s really where the focus of what we’re doing is, is thinking about digital not as simply a distribution channel for static flat files, but as something that is pretty new, and it’s super exciting.

But again, to your question, we’re still thinking through how the impact is on the curriculum, and there’s a lot of innovative educators out there doing a lot of interesting things.

KENNEALLY: Ariel Diaz, the adaptive learning terminology, tell us what that is. I’m just beginning to learn some of the vocabulary in the so-called open educational movement, and adaptive learning I would define as simply the way that as the student learns and answers questions and takes tests and so forth, the technology advances them in certain directions kind of in a personalized way rather than in a pre-formed way.

DIAZ: Exactly. That’s a very fair description of it. There are several companies trying to do these types of adaptive approaches. We are actually agnostic to the particular adaptive algorithms. We are focused on creating the underlying content and experience and the data analytics and really helping empower educators.

Adaptive technologies are one way to help empower educators by giving them a little bit more insight, by tracking better analytics, and potentially also helping students learn more effectively. Early but exciting opportunities in the adaptive learning space, as you described.

KENNEALLY: As I understand at Boundless, some of the materials that you are offering – to I believe it’s over three million students and educators – are materials that teachers themselves have developed, so they want to make those resources available to their colleagues, to their peers, and you’ve enabled that as a library of content. Explain how that works.

DIAZ: Sure. A couple of clarifications. One, our website may be out of date, but we’re actually reaching over five million students and educators every month these days. It’s some very nice growth.

And to your second point around the content, we actually have a hybrid model. In some cases, we do exactly what you say, which is we have opened up our entire very powerful publishing platform to educators to publish their own content. The benefit of doing that on a platform like ours is that you’re not publishing a Word doc or a PDF or a static Web page. You’re actually publishing into a platform dedicated and built to facilitate content creation in the educational space.

What that means is you can publish it once. You can collaborate with colleagues to help improve that content. We track every single version and every single change that’s made that you easily compare, so that over time, you can see how the content is changing and improving. And because it’s in our platform, you can seamlessly integrate to all of our educational tools, which include bundling into classes, into other customized books and mixing and matching content, integrating into the leading learning management systems so that you can easily deploy and use this in the classroom.

That community content we’ve opened up, and we have dozens of textbooks in addition to individual modules on the platform that’s continuing to grow.

The other content creation model we have is a little bit more of a hybrid model where we will actually work with subject matter experts across the over 25 subject areas that we cover and create an outline of the types of material that we want to cover to cover that particular subject, and then work with in most cases dozens of subject matter experts across each of these subject area to then to a multistep process to create this content.

The way we do that is once we have that outline, we say, where is there high-quality, openly licensed material, open educational resources, that may help us accelerate the content creation process, which then ultimately lets us pass those savings on to students.

Then if and when we find high-quality material to align to that particular concept that we want to cover, from there, it’s integrated into our platform and goes through a multistep quality assurance process that makes sure it’s factually accurate, stylistically accurate, grammatically accurate, but also makes sure that it fits into our pedagogical structure, which means each content is structured as one module that covers about 500 to 800 words, it has one or more key terms, one or more media or interactives or videos, and one or more assessment items that validate the related learning objective for that module.

This notion of saying we’re not thinking about content as a PDF, we’re thinking about it as this collection of very rich modules that can again look at the module, look at what the student’s learning objective is for that content module, and then have many assessment items that validate that learning objective. That triangle is really important to how we then organize and surface the rest of this content to educators.

Then once that content is initially created, it’s living and breathing in our platform, which means any educator who’s using it can make a suggestion that’s then approved and validated, if it meets our guidelines, by our team of experts. Then even students can flag items that may not be clear, and then we can continually improve that content. The end result is this high-quality, pre-vetted, modular content that is living and breathing and continually updated.

KENNEALLY: Ariel Diaz, chief executive officer at Boundless, I wonder about the resistance to OER and to these new types of technology-driven educational materials. I suppose in part, it’s the resistance everyone has to new technology itself, but I wonder whether it’s also a resistance in the educational world to – shall I put it this way – upstart startups like yourselves who are coming into a very established marketplace. Is there any concern that you guys just don’t have the chops that, say, some of the established players have?

DIAZ: You highlight an interesting trend that happens in any industry as it’s changing, as new technology or new ways of doing things comes to light. We’re going through the biggest transformation that the textbook market and the educational content market has really ever gone through, and it’s driven not by upstarts like us, but by inexorable trends like the Internet.

Once you start thinking about real-time connectivity across smart phones that everybody has with access to Google and Wikipedia and Boundless and many others like us, you start to really change the nature of what educational content is. That trend is really inevitable.

From our standpoint, getting to more concretely about how that impacts individual educators, it’s less about an innate resistance and more about the fact that change has a cost. If you’re an educator and you’ve been using your syllabus and your textbook for five years, there’s a cost to change that to new resources and material.

The way to drive that change and overcome that cost is to deliver something that’s not just the same or not just cheaper, but actually better on some axes. What we’ve really focused on is thinking through as we’re talking with institutions, with educators who come to Boundless in many cases organically or who are hearing about Boundless, our pitch is not about cost.

Our pitch is, digital can be a fundamentally transformative and better experience. You can get insights to help your educators understand which students are struggling because they’re not doing the reading versus which students are struggling because they’re doing the reading and not understanding it. Because the intervention for those two cases is actually very different.

We can also do things like create little mini study habits when they have 10 minutes versus sitting down and reading an entire chapter because of the nature of changing the way you would display that content.

As this transition happens, it’s really critical for all the players, whether it’s startups like ourselves or even some of the traditional big players in the market who are looking at how do you leverage digital. It’s really thinking about how can you create better experiences, leveraging the power of this new technology to overcome that inherent switching cost. And once you do that, then the conversation changes from resistance to excitement.

That’s something we’re really starting to see is this notion of digital is better not because it’s just cheaper – which it is – but also because it empowers educators. It gets better insight. It’s what students are increasingly expecting from an experience. And that’s the really exciting part.

KENNEALLY: We have been speaking today on Beyond the Book with Ariel Diaz. He’s the founder and chief executive officer and Boston-based Boundless. Thank you so much for joining us on the program.

DIAZ: My pleasure. Great to be here.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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