Chegg moves beyond textbook rentals

Chegg allows students to read books online while they wait for their hardcopy books.

Online textbook rental company Chegg wants college students to visit its website all year round, not just in the hectic first few days of every semester. announced Aug. 18 a major expansion of its website that will not only add more eTextbooks, but also integrate other digital content such as homework help, professor ratings, and a study guide marketplace.

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Since its founding in 2007, Chegg has grown to become the largest textbook rental service in the United States. But with competitors such as BookRenter, Campus Book Rentals, and college bookstores nipping at its heels, Chegg has rapidly expanded its menu of digital services over the past year.

Chegg purchased a host of smaller companies: CourseRank, which allows students to share class and professor ratings; Notehall, where students can buy and sell study guides; and Cramster and Student of Fortune, which provide online homework help in different formats.

The popular website’s redesign created a self-dubbed “social education platform” by integrating these new services into a centralized location.

Chegg seeks to become an educational platform for college students in the way that Facebook is a social platform and LinkedIn is a professional platform, said Chegg CEO and President Dan Rosensweig.

Rosensweig said he hopes to give students a “My Chegg” page through which students can search professor reviews, schedule classes, compare purchase and rental costs of textbooks, ask homework questions, and even sell their old notes.

“Chegg is becoming a 300-day-a-year network of things that help you save time, save money, get smarter—but also you get to earn money by helping other students,” Rosensweig said in an interview on Forbes’ “Kym’s New Faces of Tech.”

Through the Chegg Courses service, which builds on the idea of CourseRank, students can share reviews of classes and professors and view course descriptions and grade distributions.

Another service, based on Notehall, allows students to buy and sell notes.

Students who write the study guides receive a percentage of each sale. Rosensweig pointed out that at a time when school tuition and fees are putting students in more debt than ever, this study guide marketplace rewards strong students.

Digital textbooks are also now available on Chegg’s website for sale and rental, in time for the new school year. Chegg has amassed a comprehensive eTextbook library by partnering with leading education publishers, including Cengage Learning, Elsevier, F.A. Davis, Macmillan, McFarland, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Taylor and Francis, and Wiley.

Rosensweig acknowledged that surveys have shown most students prefer print textbooks, but said he feels the transition to digital formats is inevitable, because “the formats will get better, the devices will get better, [and] the experiences will get better.”

Students who download the eBooks can use one-click subject navigation, which allows users to jump to relevant points in the text, as well as more traditional functions such as highlighting, taking notes, and searching in the book.

A “read while you wait” tool allows students who order hardcopy textbooks to access eBooks while their books are shipping.

Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the campus activist group Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said that as a consumer advocate for student interests, she approves of giving students more options, but she remains skeptical of the eBook model.

“We all know that the digital format has a lot of potential,” Allen said. “But prices [could] be a lot lower, and [the publishers] are not maximizing the potential of the digital format to reduce costs.”

For now, print textbooks offer some affordable options because “students can buy books used, can share them with friends, or can sell them to someone else taking the class—but you can’t do that with eBooks,” Allen said.

Allen said she fears that eBooks are a “slippery slope.” eBooks are often cheaper to produce and distribute, but most publishers restrict students’ ability to share content.

And if the market changes so that only eBook rentals are available, students may never be able to own their own books.

“When you put publishers in total control of the market, that translates to very high prices,” Allen said.

Allen suggested that Flat World Knowledge, the largest commercial open-source textbook publisher, has a much better business model. Flat World publishes texts for free online, and then students can buy print versions in black and white or pay more for color.

Students can choose the option that best fits their needs—and that’s how it is in every other market, Allen said.

Angela Pontarolo, communications manager for Chegg, said that the price of eBook rentals is “completely dependent on the market.” Pontarolo pointed out that the course review and selection services are free, and the homework help services have free subscription options.

The launching of Chegg’s redesign coincided with students returning to school for the fall 2011 semester, and the new website has gotten positive feedback, Pontarolo said. She stressed that Chegg “revolutionized [its] site through student feedback” and will continue to incorporate changes suggested by users.

“What I really want to stress is that 12 months ago we were just doing textbook rentals,” Pontarolo said. “Now we’re moving into the social education platform and making the experience more personalized.”

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