Monday, 1 July 2013

Meet the EdTech entrepreneurs - An interview with Ariel Diaz

MOOC enthusiasts keep highlighting the rise in tuition fees for the past decades. Textbooks prices have followed a similar upward shooting curve.
Boundless is an American startup offering a solution to this problem: free textbooks.
The Good MOOC interviews Boundless co-founder and CEO Ariel Diaz.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I am the founder and CEO of Boundless, a Boston-based startup that creates low-cost, high-quality digital textbooks and study tools for college students. I am from Miami, where I attended good public schools for grades K-12, and completed the International Baccalaureate program in high school. After high school, I had a fantastic opportunity to attend Dartmouth College and study engineering. Because of these experiences, I grew aware of and began to appreciate the importance of education, and the importance of offering others an opportunity to reach their full potential through furthering their education as I did.

  • Can you describe Boundless and what you're working on?

Boundless replaces the high-price textbooks students need for college with affordable digital alternatives. The content in our textbooks align to the information students need for class — at a much lower price. We use Open Educational Resources (OER) in a way that’s easy for students to understand, by uniting the three most important tenets of OER use: search, trust, and relevance. We find the right content, make sure it is reliable, and arrange it to meet students’ needs. We are currently gearing up for our third school year. Students at more than 2,000 colleges in the US are already using Boundless and we’re excited to share some great updates with them this fall.

  • How did you first think about the concept behind Boundless and why is this important to you?

I — along with my co-founders Aaron White and Brian Balfour — didn’t see a reason students should pay hundreds of dollars a semester on textbooks when the information they need is already freely available. Over the past 20 years there has been a huge increase in high quality, openly-licensed, and free educational content, created by leading educators, institutions, and governments. We knew we could build on that content as an alternative to overpriced textbooks and offer a better learning experience for students.

  • Can you give a quick idea of your business model?

We believe content is and should be free. Therefore our business model will center around charging for premium features that help people learn more effectively. We have been testing various features and plan on rolling them out soon.

  • What's your analysis of the current state of higher education?

Education is really at a crossroads. While costs skyrocket, effectiveness is stagnating. The US ranks below average in STEM education compared to other OECD countries, and US student debt is more than one trillion dollars. On the other hand, open content and new technology are opening up a world that will significantly improve and increase learning opportunities, regardless of income. These two worlds are hard to connect. I believe the current generation of edtech startups can do that, while also significantly improving the effectiveness, affordability, and prevalence of education.

  • Where do you see higher education going in the medium to long-term future with MOOCs and free textbooks?

The current trends in technology and open content will open up a new world of opportunities and disrupt the status quo. In the next 20 years there will be more change in the world of education than there has been in the past 200 years. I hope that soon, we’ll look back and think that it was crazy to force students to pay over $1,000 a year for general textbooks — just how now it now seems silly to ask someone to pay for a general encyclopedia. And we’ll see people across the world benefiting from high-quality MOOC classes and taking that knowledge into their communities.

  • Do you see professors and institutions at risk from the current MOOC revolution?

I think professors and institutions will evolve from their current form, but I don't see them going away. Schools will focus more on the communities they foster, which can often be incredible innovation centers. Professors will focus more of their time on mentoring and customized learning, instead of simply broadcasting information. Both are exciting opportunities for professors and schools in my mind.

  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?

I have started a few MOOCs, but like most students, I must admit I did not finish them. Personally I find the MOOCs that follow a rigid schedule are very difficult to stick with because I’m very busy with my day job. I would much prefer self-paced asynchronous courses, with the ability to finish in a weekend if you choose, or restart at any point after a delay without feeling like you’re already too far behind. I read a lot of non-fiction, and right now that’s still the best source for my personal interests and life-long learning, though I’ll keep an eye on MOOCs as they continue to develop and improve.

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