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As part of my interview series for the business/entrepreneur website MO.com, I recently spoke with Ujjwal Gupta, Co-Founder of BenchPrep.com. Here are a few bonus features and facts not included in the publication:

  • Having recently raised 6 million dollars, the 15-month-old BenchPrep currently has more than 250,000 users.
  • When studying for a test, users will spend on average 9 hours per month within the application and up to 40% of users will buy more than once course (if multiple courses are available).
  • With the new round of capital, BenchPrep is looking to expand their offerings to include CliffsNotes, study guides, and assessment tools. This totally integrated cross-platform allows for connectivity across computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android device.

When asked about his reading list, Ujjwal listed the following sites:

In an acquision that has been largely known for a while, official word finaly will come today to confirm the purchase of Valorebooks.com by Simple Tuition. SimpleTuition has spent the last year expanding beyond the simple student loan comparison site that it once once. The company now offers credit cards, banking, payback and cost adjusters to help the college student compare financial aid awards and see which schools they can afford.

The purchase of the textbook marketplace provides additional touch points for the company to interact with students during the school year. According to the press release (link to come shortly) the new bigger company will now reach over 10 million students per year. While no numbers were released on the purchase price, Valorebooks is boasting a marketplace of over 20,000 sellers and over 18 million titles.

With all the bad news the industry has seen with Borders, Nebraska, Budgetext, SouthEasternBook and more it is good to see some good news.

All signs are pointing to South Easter Book being closed and not reopening for business. Last week the company stated that the site shut down was a mistake and they planned to have it back up and running shortly. In the wake of the Chuck Jones lawsuits it seems that SE Book maybe the victim.

In a response to an earlier story I ran I was contact by a bookseller who claims to have sold a lot of books to SE Books a few months back. He tells the story of needing to send in the books for review before he would get paid. He claims to have mailed in hundreds of book worth over $28,000. Once the books arrived he stated to get the runaround. With some persistence he was able to collect a payment of $9,000 and they promised to pay the remaining money ($19,000) in August.

Following up on his payment this bookseller recently reached out to Scott Wright at SE Book and was told “SouthEastern will be closing next week so we don’t’ know the status of your payment at this time.

I guess we can consider that confirmation. If you know otherwise, share!

TheTextbookGuru.com has been following this bill since it was introduced in 2011.  Last week the bill was unanimously approved and has been sent to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for signature.  Once signed it will be the Nation’s First Open Source Textbook Legislation.  Here are a few thoughts on the bill and why it matters.

1. California matters.
While California isn’t the first to launch such a project, they are the first state to launch such a large initiative. We have seen the Washington State board launch open classes and the State of Utah creating open textbooks, which sell in print for just $5. What differs here is that California legislation is focused on higher education and the most-important, most-taken classes in college. If these textbooks prove to be a quality alternative to the more costly editions currently being used, this model will spread.

2. California Enterprise wants this to succeed.
Lots of forward-thinking foundations and great minds in the state want this to succeed. California is the home of Creative Commons, the organization by which the digital licensing will be structured. 20 Million Minds (@20MillionMinds), which has already produced a quality textbook in digital format for free, is California based and has been actively involved in pushing for this bill’s passage. MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) is a Cal State project. This new program will make California educators innovators in the new way education is heading.

3. Students are the real winners, faculty have to give it a chance.
With the cost of education rising and the cost of textbooks increasing as well, something has to give. The math in which this bill was created is pretty simple: If you have 100,000 students taking a course and they each pay $10 for a book, you generate one million dollars. If the state pays for the book’s development and uses the proceeds to fund future editions or other books, they program becomes self sustaining. If, mind you…

It will be up to the council to ensure that the quality of books developed meet the needs of faculty and are suitable for adoption. The publishers have a large sales force and they will not go away easily. With custom publications growing and publisher reps deeply entrenched, the fight for adoptions will not be an easy one. All that is asked is that faculty give it a chance; if a professor feels that the digital alternative is equal to or better, then adopt it and save students money. If not, stick with the print offering that does work. And the Guru concurs that the plan is a fair one that could bring some much needed relief and some new ideas in terms of content and delivery.

As part of my interview series, I recently interviewed George Cigale, CEO and Founder of Tutor.com, for the Business Entrepreneur website Mo.com. You can catch the full interview here. Here are a few bonus features and facts, things not included in the the publication:

Online tutoring and homework help is a growing business. Tutor.com has been around since 1998, has annual revenue over $15 million, and is profitable. To date, the company has raised over $30 million in venture capital funding and drives most of their revenue from institutional contracts.

One of the more interesting statistics is that the average tutoring session lasts around 25 minutes and every session ends with a survey. George shared that students drive development and features, rate tutors, and dictate what training is necessary. The customers have a voice, share it about 50% of the time, and the company really listens and reacts to what is being said.

A question I like to ask during interviews relates to reading — not which books the interviewee is reading but what industry publications he or she follows. George keeps up with the following:
Whitney Tilson’s School Reform Blog 
GSV Advisors
edSurge
Democrats for Education Reform
Rick Hess Straight Up for Education Week

Thanks to George for his time and tips. I really enjoyed learning about Tutor.com and the great things George and team have in the works. You can follow George on his blog.

Rumors are flying about South Eastern Book Company (which as of this morning has no active website), College Book Renter (website is still active), and Chuck Jones, and while not many answers can be found, here are a few of the stories that are being reported.

According to recent reports, Chuck Jones, CEO of South Eastern Book Company and College Book Renter, has stepped down. This is part of a lawsuit settlement with his former business partner.

The lawsuit, as reported, was filled by David Griffin and was filed in US District Court. According to documents, Jones used his network of companies for “his excessive personal gain” and “began to take steps to maximise his financial gains to the detriment of Griffin.”

The settling of the lawsuit by Griffin placed Jones’s companies into receivership, which has lead to additional lawsuits being filed in Circuit Four by Planters Bank for alleged breach of loan agreements.

Speaking with several employees inside both SE Book Co. and College Book Renter, it is clear that many of them are not really sure what’s going on, whom to believe, or even if they will have jobs next week. It’s a tenuous time and when asked if he expected the business to be open next week, a source replied, “Your guess is as good as mine.” Both companies already implemented a large round of layoffs earlier this year, which has of course led to much of the present uncertainty.

If history has anything to say neither, company should look to their competition for acquisition and bailout. When Borders was hanging on by a thread, rumors were flying that B&N would buy. Management watched as the company went into bankruptcy and then purchased the intellectual property in court. In 2008, Follett Corporation purchased Varsity Group for $0.20 per share in what amounted to more of purchase of the debt and very little cash for the equity. The industry hasn’t been kind to companies that have struggled.

Thank you to everyone who has made TheTextbookGuru.com a success. I took some time over the past week to research and invest in upgrading the site. I hope you like the changes and I look forward to adding more content and sharing more industry insights. Your feedback is critical, please continue to share it. Remember that you can keep up with new posts via email (see the sign up on the right), Facebook, Linkedin, or Twitter.  If you see a post you like, share it with your friends.

–Jeff

Fresh on the heels of our Flatworld Knowledge review, we are taking a look at another innovative textbook platform that is about more than just textbooks. Xplana is a platform launched two years ago by MBS Service Company Inc (a former employer of mine). intended to bridge ‘social networking and traditional elements of student learning to transform the way students manage their academic lives.”

So what does that mean? Lets turn to Xplana Chief Executive Officer Dennis Flanagan who said ” Xplana is best described as the social network for learning. It’s the first ever ‘social learning’ platform designed to bring the entire student learning life into a single location.”

So how does Xplana accomplish this rather daunting goal? Providing an eReader and a store through which to by eTextbooks is a natural place to start, but Xplana is much more, and purchasing eBooks is a small part of the big picture. Xplana allows you to collect learning materials on your profile the same way you collect records of your social life and interests on Facebook. Any media related to your academics can be uploaded and associated with your profile, be it a copy of a course sylibi, a website of supplemental material, class notes or even a video recording of a lecture.

In addition to uploading original materials you can search through hundreds of thousands of resources already available on Xplana. Many of these materials have been uploaded by students like you! So next time your cramming for an exam, you can skip the library stacks and pool resources from Xplana to supplement your course material.

However, Xplana can help you stay organized to ease the inevitable last minute cram. You can create your own study tools such as flashcards, notes and study guides as you go for easy reference later on dificult topics. Calendar and journal features let you schedule future study sessions and keep track of class projects, or keep a running record of your academic life.

Just like you might have a photo album on Facebook for that trip you took to Europe after high school, you can collect academic resources into albums within Xplana. This is a great way to keep everything from your actual eTextbook to your class notes to that one website your classmate recommended all in one place. With a little forethought, you can also add keyword tags to any item in your album to make them easily searchable later.

Now this is all great, but where is the social part of this ‘social learning platform?’ I’m glad you asked, because Xplana allows you to friend other users accounts, be it an assigned group project partner, a fellow classmate or simply another student somewhere in the world with similar academic needs. Got a mid-term coming up? You can invite your Xplana friends to an online study group or collaborate on a group project with the messaging system.

Want to show your study group a great resource you found on Xplana? Simple linking allows you to email them a link to any resource material on Xplana or you can share materials through Facebook and Twitter. Better yet, if you and your group all have the same eTextbook for your course, you can instantly share any notes or annotations you’ve made in your copy or see some made by other users.  Just want the best notes and annotations from other students? Then make a habit of rating and commenting on others annotations as you’re searching for the highest rated insight.

And this brings is back around full circle to the most fundamental but by no means simplest part of any digital learning platform, the eBook reader. Xplana’s proprietary reader boasts many progressive features that are quickly becoming industry standards. Search functionality, highlighting and the aforementioned notes and annotation functions are extremely helpful study tools. Checkpoint quizzes to test your comprehension are also invaluable in finding the holes in your understanding of a chapter.

However Xplana’s reader doesn’t stop there and features embedded rich media like animations, videos, audio clips and live links. As we’ve discussed before, these features are already a standard in eReaders when it comes to academic texts, but not all platforms fully support them as of yet. It just goes to show that Xplana isn’t resting on it’s social side by wrapping a second rate eReader into the platform and I look forward to seeing how their reader develops as new capabilities enter the market.

Do you have inconsistent internet access? No problem, you can easily download you eBook for viewing offline. All in reader features (notes/annotations/edits) still work offline and will automatically sync with your online profile the next time you log in.

If offline reading just won’t cut it, you can always take advantage of the Xplana mobile app. Available for iPhone and Android phones, the Xplana app gives you access to all your course materials and will auto sync to your account when you add new media on the desktop version. The app will also allow you to share materials with friends by email or on Twitter and Facebook. You can even take notes on mobile, or better yet, capture photos, audio or video of your lecture which can be uploaded to Xplana and added to your course materials. It’s hard to say exactly how useful this tool will be but it’s one I wish I’d had all those times I went to study and found doodles instead of notes in my notebook.

Xplana certainly didn’t invent the eReader, or social networking, or the idea of searchable, indexed user submitted content, but they are the first company to wrap up so many tools into one platform. Being able to share anything with anyone, and see anything any student has uploaded puts a wealth of information and connectivity at your fingertips. But with such an open and flexible platform, it falls to the student to fit the platform to their needs and make use of it.

If you’re that person who buys a planner at the beginning of each school year, only to fill in the first two weeks and never pick it up again, you probably won’t use Xplana to its full potential. However, if you work at it, you can not only make that cram session for the final exam easier, but be better prepared when you get there.

As we’re in the midst of back-to-school rush, I’m reading some interesting industry-related articles and posts. While many are the standard “how to save on college, dorm decor, food, textbooks, etc.,” types of writings, a few more-detailed (and more honest and daring) posts have caught my attention. I wanted to take a moment to share them with you.

 

The New Republic, “How College Bookstores Are Killing College Bookstores”
In this post, Mark Athitakis explores how the college bookstore has gone from being dependent on selling textbooks to a vendor of anything but — namely a services outpost selling everything but textbooks.

http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/106376/decline-of-college-bookstores-textbooks-online-print

Luke Thomas, “The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story”
This is a firsthand account of a student trying to purchase books and the hassles and hurdles and confrontations he and his wife faced trying to do so without breaking the bank. It’s a real-life account of the cruel world of academic book-buying, and it isn’t pretty.

http://lukethomas.com/the-textbook-industry-greed-its-getting-worse/

And of course, something from the vault . . .
The Textbook Guru, “Why Can’t I Buy My Books Anywhere But The Bookstore?”
My take on the bookstore’s attempt to move to custom publications and the negative impact on students.
Part 1: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/07/i-cant-find-my-textbook/
Part 2: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/09/i-cant-find-my-textbookpart-2/
Reactions: http://thetextbookguru.com/2012/08/10/why-cant-i-buy-my-book-any-where-but-the-bookstore-reaction/

The last time I checked in on the eTextbook platform at Chegg, it was February of this year; what a difference six months has made! While the original system was impressive, the changes are even more so and they are going to help set Chegg apart in the digital arena. Here’s what’s up:

iPhone Reader: Taking advantage of the retina display on iPhone, the new-and-improved Chegg app now has a direct tie to the eTextbook platform. This experience is fully optimized and provides a crisp-and-clean interface that is easy to navigate and easy on the eyes. Want to take it for a spin? The app has a sample eTextbook, so try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Notepad: In the first review, I mentioned the notes feature, but the new notepad is a totally revised experience. Clip a quote, grab a picture, or insert a Wikipedia definition into your note page and start a digital record of the notes and parts of the book you find most interesting. This is particularly helpful when going back to study for a test.

Homework Help: The old system had a Q&A component. The new system has deep integration with the Homework Help social interaction that Chegg is really promoting this fall.

Highlights: When I buy a used book, I typically look at the highlighting from the previous owner to see if s/he did a good job calling out useful content. The new highlight feature in Chegg tech allows you to see passages of the book that have been highlighted by other users. I thought this was a great use of digital content, kind of like getting the wisdom of all others who have used the same text.

While You Wait: While this isn’t a feature of the digital book itself, it is a nice feature of the larger process. Now when you order your textbook rental, if you are worried the book will not arrive by the first day of class, you can pay $0.99 to get a digital copy of the book for seven days while you wait for the print copy.

Chegg is setting the bar high for eTextbooks. As I have mentioned in past posts, Chegg needs a digital strategy to ensure its future now that it has serious competition from many rental companies trying to emulate what Chegg started a few years ago. You can tell by recent updates that the folks at Chegg get it, that they understand that they cannot rest upon their rental laurels and that they must continually innovate and that such innovation must come in the form of an interactive digital hub that is mobile friendly.