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Professors Blast e-Textbook Company

By 2000 standards, Digital Learning Interactive (DLI) had all the ingredients of a can't miss dot-com: a CEO with Harvard credentials; $25 million in Venture capital; and a plan to make an offline business, in this case, college textbook publishing, more efficient by moving it online.

The Medford, Mass., company signed 400 schools for its iLrn service. Professors liked it because they could augment core texts with customized content such as slide shows and interactive maps. Students liked it because it could be accessed anywhere using a password and was up to 60 percent cheaper than buying texts at the college book store.

But as startup vets know, a good product or service doesn't guarantee business success. And apparently, DLI is gone, leaving professors and students in the lurch.

The company's voicemail is on, but mailboxes are full. An e-mail to DLI's spokesman went unreturned. Neither the Boston venture capital firm that bankrolled the company, nor the public relations firm that trumpeted its news immediately responded to inquiries.

"(iLrn has) ceased to function, leaving the 100 plus students in my Western Civ classes -- and in classes at over 400 colleges and universities across the country -- without their course books," Gregory Brown, an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told students in an online posting.

Brown told internetnews.com that as recently as last month he had received assurances that DLI would not close mid-semester. The company's third-party online technical support provider told Brown that while subscribers continue to e-mail in, responses from iLrn stopped February 3.

Other users echoed Brown's frustration and are scrambling to make alternative plans as finals approach. Brown has posted the chapters from the DLI CD-ROM to his Web site.

Meanwhile, he and others are looking into whether the company has filed for bankruptcy, hoping students can be listed as creditors and receive partial refunds. If DLI's assets are bought, Brown said the new owners must act quickly to restore whatever good will is left.

"If the company ever expects comes back into operation, under its present or any other management, it should hasten to make some sort of statement to those students and instructors," Brown said.