eBook Review: CourseSmart

Welcome to the next installment of the Textbook Guru’s eBook review series. Today I am taking a look at the CourseSmart eTextbook platform, but I’ve already reviewed Kno and Inkling, which you can read first if you haven’t already. My first two reviews were done using iPad apps, but CourseSmart is a little different, as you’ll see, so I am predominantly using it through my web browser.

Pay about 60% less than the cost of print!

As before, lets begin by talking about the purchasing experience, since each platform so far has had a different policy. With Kno and Inkling, each book (or chapter on Inkling) is fully purchased and yours forever (if you chose). With CourseSmart, all of their eBooks are rentals, and are disabled from your account at the end of the rental period. Renting print and eTextbooks was a hot topic at the start of this academic year as a way to save money, but some students found that because of their school schedule, they’d either have to rent the book for only part of their term, or extend into the next. With CourseSmart, nearly all of their rentals are for a 12 month period, ensuring that you’ll have plenty of time to use it.

Unlike Inkling, but similar to Kno, CourseSmart has a 14 day return policy on all their books granted you haven’t viewed or used more than 20% of the book. Of course all your books, or chapters of books, need to be ‘checked in’ before you can return it, which leads me to my next point. You can ‘check out’ sections of books, or entire books (up to 5 titles) which allows you to download them to your computer for offline reading. In my opinion this is one of the strongest features CourseSmart has to offer, since even today in the 21st century a reliable Internet connection is not always available.


Lets dive right into using the eBook. For starters, CourseSmart offers many of the tools I’ve come to expect from an eBook. For instance you can write notes that become anchored to the page they are written on. These notes are then accessible through the menu sidebar and are sorted by page number. This is pretty standard but what I found interesting is that you can also see all your notes inany book directly from you bookshelf. This would prove very handy if you take heavy notes to study from later.

Highlighting is also a standard feature, although CourseSmart only allows one color, yellow. Anything you highlight is also organized in the sidebar like your notes and you can quickly jump between important sections using this menu. Instead of being saved on your clipboard to be pasted later, when you copy text, CourseSmart pulls it out in a pop up window and converts it to plain text. As someone who prefers bulleted lists for studying instead of long passages, this would be helpful for sifting out only the important text and having it in a workable, editable format right in the eBook.

One feature I was disappointed in was the zoom tool. The other platforms I’ve seen have allowed me to zoom in and out freely on any part of the page, which was very helpful in the science texts which often have large diagrams or charts. However, when using CourseSmart on the web, the zoom tool simply toggles between normal view and a slight zoom, probably around 50% larger.

A weak zoom tool is certainly not a deal breaker, but it is more than made up for by two features CourseSmart boasts that I haven’t seen anywhere else, ‘share’ and ‘print.’ Clicking share will give you a URL to copy so you can “share this link with your instructor or classmates.” When your classmate opens the link, they are able to view the page you shared as if they were logged into your CourseSmart account. The best thing about this feature? It saves your highlights and notes from that page. This is the kind of interactive study tool I’ve been hoping to see in an eBook. Which leads me to the next great study feature.

CourseSmart allows you to print up to a 10 page passage directly from your web browser. Selecting print allows you to select a start page (defaults to the page you are currently viewing) and up to 10 pages after. Just like sharing a page through a link, this feature also preserves highlights, however notes are not printed along side it.


As I stated above, one of the most impressive features on CourseSmart is the ability to read offline. You can read any part of any book you’ve rented offline, as long as you don’t exceed 5 titles checked out at a time. Attempting to check out a 6th title will prompt you to check in one of your other books. To access your books while offline, you need to first be online. From your bookshelf you can select ‘read now’ or ‘read offline’ which will allow you to check off which chapters you want to download.

Being a big fan of Google’s web browser Chrome, I was disappointed that offline reading is only supported on Firefox version 3.6 and higher. I’ve run into this problem with other services, so I always keep Firefox on my desktop, but with so many browsers our there it seems strange to only support one. However, after you download the chapter(s), you need to bookmark the offline section by visiting coursesmart.com/offlinebookshelf. Then, to access your books offline you simply open your browser, click your bookmark for offline bookshelf and all your downloaded titles are waiting for you.

Now I must admit that complaining about the offline bookshelf’s limited availability seems silly when you consider the fact that your entire online bookshelf is available through ANY web browser with an Internet connection. So for offline I’m stuck with Firefox, but for online I can read from Chrome, Safari, IE, and most importantly any mobile web browser. There are mobile apps for Android and iOS devices, but being able to read from any device that can get to the CourseSmart website seems like a pretty handy feature.

Next, it’s important to note the inclusion of ‘eResources’ with certain titles. At first glance I assumed this would be similar to that DVD in the back of your textbook that you had to pay an extra $30 for but never end up using. However, while the eResource component of CourseSmart texts delivers valuable extra features, but they are features that are already embedded in the text on other platforms. Features like online homework, quizzes and exercises, simulations and videos or links to outside websites with related content.

To me, this is sort of missing the point of an eBook. These features are separated into a companion DVD for most print textbooks because there’s no way to include that content within the book. But eBooks have no limits to the kind of content they can display which is what makes them so exciting. Being able to tap on a diagram and hear a professor explain photosynthesis, or spinning a chlorophyll molecule around in a 3D image, or opening full screen videos that literally show you how evolution works is what separates eBooks from print books. Separating these features into a seperate eResource section seems like a step backwards to me.

CourseSmart Shop Now


Overall I enjoyed using CourseSmart. They have most of the standard features you’d expect from an eBook and it was simple to use and navigate within a book. I was disappointed in the lack of multimedia features within the text, but the study features like printing and sharing are very useful and not available elsewhere. However the best part of the CourseSmart platform is the ability to read on or offline, and the variety of devices you can access your books from. Being restricted to the iPad on other platforms is like print books in that you only have the one copy, but CourseSmart is like having a copy anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Since I’ve never had to reference any of my school books after I was finished with the course, the idea of having them on a rental basis makes a lot of sense. The 12 month rental period is handy since you don’t have to worry about how your schedule matches up to the rental periods, and if it results in lower prices to purchasing the eBook outright then I’m all in. I think CourseSmart is doing a lot of things right, and they have a very solid eTextbook platform that covers all the bases, however I look forward to watching them innovate in the years to come as certain features become industry standards.

Comments (32)

  1. College Student

    If you are considering purchasing a CourseSmart product I recommend that you either learn from my mistake and DO NOT BUY ANY BOOKS from CourseSmart or check out the free trial before you decide to purchase.
    After I paid $104 for a microbiology textbook thinking it would be a convenient way to have all my heavy text books with me where ever I go, I found out that there are so many cons it was not worth all the trouble. I ended up feeling ripped off after my 180day online rental.

    -light weight; don’t have to carry heavy text books
    -each chapter is organized by quick links on the side
    -easy to look up chapters, terms, and page numbers
    -allows you to copy, highlight, take notes, print, or share selected text (*with limitations)

    -too expensive; not worth it
    -after a short two week time frame from the purchase date you will no longer be able to return or sell this book back
    -must log in multiple times because the program will sometimes log out without warning
    ***username and password cannot be saved in browser history
    -can highlight but hard to select the exact area that you need highlighted
    -can copy and paste but you must first select the area of text that you would like to copy, then press the copy button at the top of the screen, then a new window will pop up, then you must reselect and copy the text that is inside the new window
    *short-cut commands will not work (for example: pressing control+c on your pc or command+c on your mac will not copy the selected text)
    ***if the font was bold, italics, etc. in the text it will be changed to a default font in new window where it is no longer bold, italics, etc.
    ***if copying multiple paragraphs the paragraphs will no longer be neatly separated
    ***not allowed to copy or paste any images/pictures or tables from the text
    -only allowed to print 10pages at once
    -when taking notes your notes are only visible one note at a time after you have clicked the notes tab, and selected the note that you would like to view
    ***cannot view notes while simultaneously viewing the text
    -while reading only one page is visible view at a time
    -there is no option available to view two pages at once like in a printed text
    -if you need a text-to-speech application it WILL NOT work
    “The Apple OSX VoiceOver system can be used with CourseSmart to provide text-to-speech capabilities. Users with experience using VoiceOver on iOS devices can also use it on the iPad and iPhone. CourseSmart cannot support users in the use of the Apple products”
    ***quote taken from CourseSmart help page

    …If the cons listed above are not issues for you then by all means enjoy your experience with CourseSmart. My expectations may have just been too high for an online text.



    Overall Rating:
    Avoid It


  2. Pingback: eBooks Platform Reviews: The Wrap-Up Show! «

  3. kodi

    I would also recommend to purchase from the publisher directly. I bought an ebook through coursesmart and though I had thought it included the eresources such as the development portal access code it did not and you cannot purchase this through coursesmart. The publisher tech support will not back them if you are unhappy. Coursemart would do nothing to reimburse me, I was told they don’t offer the access code I needed. I now have to purchase the ebook through the publisher and purchase an access code for an eresource that should have been part of my purchase through coursemart but wasn’t.

  4. Mishelle Padilla

    Hello, are these reviews before or after the coursesmart app was made?

    1. TextbookGuru (Post author)

      most apps were on the market. my reviews haven’t been to compare them to one another but to review each one on its own.

  5. Mishelle Padilla

    Also, which is your favorite iPad ereader thus far?

  6. Mishelle Padilla

    My comments seem a bit excessive, but I must say (unless I did something wrong/downloaded a different version of the app), the fluidity of the coursesmart app on the iPad is far more superior than the kno. Some of my books are cheaper if bought via Kno, but if having a cheaper book meant having the app crash every minute, not being able to highlight sentences properly due to choppiness, and having a lag on almost everything thing you do while reading (as if my iPad was hooked on to a dial-up phone jack), then it’s not worth it. As I live in the NOW, coursesmart is the best option.

  7. Phil

    The iPad app is so clunky and unstable, it’s almost unusable. Coursemart need to realize that their biggest competition is a lot more user friendly – and 100% cheaper…

  8. Mona

    I tried to download book offline to my computer and received error message before end. To use course smart you have to be constantly connected to internet.

  9. Marianne

    Do NOT use CourseSmart!!!! I have been shut out of all of my textbooks shortly before midterm and I cannot study for any upcoming tests/exams/projects until they figure out what caused my iPad application, offline CafeSmart source, and the website itself to not function. This is the second time I have called their technical support and there is no fix and NO REFUND. I have wasted my time and money AND put my GPA in jeopardy.

    It will be 48 hours or more until CafeScribe’s technical support’s supervisors get back to me. I cannot do my coursework. I cannot access ANY of my books at ALL. My professors are unsympathetic. I will receive a failing grade on an assignment and exam that requires the book until I can purchase it elsewhere or CafeScribe fixes it for me.

    1. Katrina

      Wait– CafeScribe & CourseSmart are two different eReaders. Which one are you talking about??

      1. thetextbookguru (Post author)

        cafescribe is a different reader. this write up is about coursesmart.com.

  10. tempest_x86

    The iPad app blows major butthole.

    That is all.

  11. disbroc

    I would suggest that other alternatives are used over coursesmart. The offline experience is severely limited and not worth it after their restrictions.

  12. sebehm

    Thanks for your review! I am going to give it a try because it still seems to have the best reviews for offline ipad use. (Despite all of these negative comments). However, it looks like they no longer do 12 month eTextbook rentals. They are saying 180 days in my checkout cart, which is tricky for me given my long spring semester.

    1. thetextbookguru (Post author)

      Contact them and let them know. I would be surprised if they didn’t extended it to meet the terms of your class. let me know.

  13. Grrrr

    So I bought a book from Cengage because that’s what my lecturer told me to do but they didn’t mention anything about coursesmart or that it was a rental thing. Firstly it wouldn’t let me download the app, when it finally did it says that my login details are incorrect yet when I login using a laptop it works perfectly fine? I decide it was pointless trying to figure out how to use the ebook so I go to request a refund, of course the refund page won’t work either, basically they just ripped me off my money because nothing works.

  14. katt

    This review is a bit outdated, shortly after written CourseSmart changed their look. This review is pretty spot on even still though. I use them and have found that the pros outweigh the cons. For instance the offline feature is now supported on Firefox 19, Google Chrome 19 or higher and Safari 5.1 and higher . They now have options for page views, from single page view, to a continuous scrolling view. Your notes, highlights, and copied text is saved to an outline view. I’ve also noticed that the subscription lengths vary, depending on the course of study and the publisher, they can start at 180 days and some extend for up to two years. There are some things that still need improvement and I can’t wait to see what and how their developers bring to the table over the next few months/years.

  15. Stacy

    Despite the negative reviews on Coursesmart, I have had nothing but a wonderful experience. Yes- the electronic books are expensive but this is the cheapest, most reliable site I found. Lucky for me, I seem to have rented my ebook after the website’s numerous updates. To the person complaining that they couldn’t return their book after two weeks- hello! You rented it for 180 days. Coursesmart will allow returns and refunds as long as you have not viewed or downloaded a certain percentage of the book, otherwise they’d be losing money. Anyway, more about my experience- I purchased an ebook for my class mainly because I needed it to do homework that was due that day and didn’t have time to wait for it to be mailed. I wanted to be able to view the book from a separate window other than my laptop, so I messaged Coursesmart and received a response within MINUTES! A polite, concise response that directed me to where I needed to go to download an app. I downloaded the app for my Kindle Fire (note to kindle users- there is a slightly longer process in downloading this app, you have to download another app as well although it is free). Once I got the app up and running, it worked great. Easy viewing, search for pages or specific words, highlight, copy/paste, etc. The search for specific words especially comes in handy for my online courses; when I am taking a quiz I can easily type a term I am not sure of in the search bar and find my answer without having to flip through pages or scan the index 😉 Another thing I love is that it allows you to download the book so it is available offline which is awesome; it allows me to do my homework/study anywhere! Summed up, I love Coursesmart! Easy, reliable, great customer service.

    Definitely recommended
    Will absolutely use again
    Great for Kindle & iPad
    Simple, concise, fast

    A+ Coursesmart :)!

  16. Kathy

    Hi Stacy-

    I downloaded my textbook to my Kindle Fire, but I can’t highlight the text. Did you have this problem or do you have any suggestions I might try?
    Thank you-

    1. thetextbookguru (Post author)

      you need the coursesmart app for the functions to work. I didn’t test coursesmart on Kindle so I don’t have a specific answer for you. If you do get it figured out please post back so that you can share your experience with others.

  17. Danielle

    When you “return” the rented e book do you get a percentage of the price that you payed back?

    1. thetextbookguru (Post author)

      If you are using the term “return” to refer to giving the book back within the “return period” which is 14 days (http://www.coursesmart.com/returnpolicy) then you should get a refund. If you are using the term “return” to define the end of the “rental period” then you will not get anything back for your book. eTextbooks are typically not a purchase but a rental. For couresmart the rental is typically 180 days. At the end of that period of time the book is no longer available on your device. Hope this helps.

  18. Soraya

    I would NOT recommend Coursesmart. It is a terrible place to get ebooks. So hard to read and make notes, highlight, etc.

  19. Mona

    I recently signed up for an Accounting course online. Instead of spending $136 to purchase a big, heavy textbook. I have decided to download an eTextbook, so I called customer service at Textnet.ca and I was told that I need to download Coursesmart in order to download the eTextbook to my IPAD. My issue is whether I can access to the eTextbook without internet access on the GO train. Is this offline user friendly ? I have a full time job and I don’t have a whole day to figure how to get it work offline. Any comment or suggestion would be greatly appreciated.

    1. thetextbookguru (Post author)

      I would suggest you check out coursesmart.com to get full details about on/off line capabilities. I believe this is on a book by book basis. you can call them at 866-588-3197 or go to their site and do a live chat. Once you get some more details, please come back and share. Coursesmart also has a 14 day return policy but make sure you read the details -http://bit.ly/14WiR4e. this maybe enough time for you to determine if this product is right for you.

  20. Sam

    I want to download CourseSmart eBook on my computer at work, so I can study at work. Once I do that, will I be able to go home and download it on my computer there as well?

  21. CoCo

    This review was helpful!! – You just saved me from buying an etextbook from Kindle.

    1. Aarron Dixon

      The app usually doesn’t work, the text is stupidly low res, and they won’t return your money when you ask for a refund. Their customer service reads from a script and has no clue whatsoever how to give you any help of any kind.

      I’d strongly suggest either buying that Kindle book, or flushing your money down the toilet. Either option would be superior to CourseSmart.

  22. Drea

    Would not recommend. Only available offline on PC and iPad. That does not help when I have an iPhone and a nook when I am on the train 2 hours a day.

  23. Jessica

    I purchased an ebook its stupid slow to get to text and the representative do not have any knowledge of there products nor what you are talking about when you call on top of that they give you stupid answers like download another application or clear history browser I’m like wtf i don’t want to download any other viruses on my computer i have enough

  24. Course Smart sucks

    Course Smart sucks.


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