Truly Boundless Learning?

Boundless Learning LogoNote: This is a guest post written by Jason Chu, the Senior Education Manager for Turnitin. Views or opinions expressed in this piece may or may not reflect my own. If you are interested in guest blogging for PT, please see these guidelines and contact me here.

In March, Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education brought a much-publicized suit against Boston-based education startup Boundless Learning for copyright infringement. For those who have been following the suit and the ensuing discussion, the case puts educational startups looking to leverage the open-content revolution on high alert. The case also underscores just how significant cost is for education.

But more than the intriguing questions the case opens up about just how “revolutionary” the open-content approach is (is it “revolutionary” because it’s free?), the suit addresses questions about the potential value of open-sourced textbook solutions.

At the heart of the Boundless suit is a claim from the publishers that Boundless, in its endeavor to create replacement texts for college-level courses, created “shadow versions” of the publishers’ most-widely used textbooks. From a legal standpoint, the case is important as its outcome will provide some needed guidance on how to draw the line between idea and expression, especially in light of the growth of open-content textbook solutions.

Whether or not the copyright infringement claims in this case are proven in court, the implication that the content contained within the texts (both printed and Boundless) share a common pedigree holds fast. That is, both the textbooks that preceded it (at least chronologically), as well as the Boundless versions, tap into the same shared corpus of knowledge in developing their respective content. This domain knowledge (biology, psychology and economics, in this case) is the “open-source” content that is at the core of the suit’s contention.

To explain a little further, the suit makes no claim that the publishers own the content or the “ideas”, instead they claim they have copyright over the expression of this content: The unique organization of the chapters, the table of contents, and the specific examples used.

For instance, the suit makes explicit mention of the Boundless’ biology text use of an image of a bear alongside its description of thermodynamics, something that the suit claims the printed textbook depicted first. More unsettling, the suit calls attention to prior marketing-related copy from the Boundless site that asserted that the Boundless texts were “replacement” texts that “aligned” with current college textbooks being used. Putting aside the question of copyright infringement for the moment, what these claims smack of is plagiarism.

If we hold fast to the definition of plagiarism as the unacknowledged appropriation of ideas and words from another source, then the Boundless texts would seem to tread some questionable ground, particularly in its “alignment” with the publishers’ preceding texts. But, what’s interesting is not what is plagiarized, but why Boundless felt the need to call upon these publishers’ texts in developing their own “revolutionary” approach to college textbooks. In this regard, Boundless’ venture into open content is not so “open,” pointing to the market-driven aspects of plagiarism.

It is clear that Boundless seeks to revolutionize the textbook industry and the textbook marketplace. But, this is a market that is not so easily cracked. Establishing a foothold in the existing textbook market by offering a competitive product at a better price (not truly competitive, because Boundless’ first iteration of textbook replacements are free) is the sensible approach to building a growth business.

As they say, revolutions begin from within. In this case, the “within” is the college classroom and students’ distaste (and financial burden) in paying for expensive textbooks. The barrier to entry, at least from a business model standpoint, is a low one; the need and market clearly exist.

Taking into account these market dimensions, plagiarism makes brutal business sense. But, as is the case when writing instructors find students who plagiarize, this suit begs the question of whether this “plagiarism” is a step in the process of coming up with something original or is merely a co-opting of what’s established, authoritative, and works.

If we follow the market’s lead and use it as a proxy for potential success (as we tend to do with Internet start-ups), then the Venture Capital money as well as the noteworthy board members (including Hal Abelson, Founder of MIT’s OpenCourseWare) would seem to indicate that Boundless has the makings of a bright future, regardless the outcome of the copyright suit.

In fact, the suit has only underscored how significant a change Boundless might introduce. Now, we have to wait and see whether this “revolution” in education will be forthcoming, or if this is just an instance of David replacing Goliath.

There is a whole lot more at stake here than investor dollars.

Jason Chu ImageJason Chu is Senior Education Manager for Turnitin. He finds passion in student academic success, for all students, and has an extensive background in education technology. During the span of his career, he’s spent significant time working for the College Board, for Kaplan, and for small start-up non profits in the education space.

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