Partnership Gives Students Access to a High-Price Text on a MOOC Budget

May 08, 2013

Later this month, Michael Schatz, a physics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, will begin teaching a massive open online physics course through Coursera. Because of the complexity of physics and because the course uses computer modeling, students taking the MOOC will need access to something that doesn't often come with a free online course: an expensive textbook.

"This is an intro course," Mr. Schatz said. "The idea is this is a person's first course in physics. Textbook usage is a common feature of such courses. They play a central role. Without the book, this course is kind of a nonstarter."

But that textbook, which is called Matter and Interactions and is published by John Wiley & Sons, can cost more than $150. With many participants enrolling in MOOCs as a way to learn while saving money, how to bring high-quality, mainstream textbooks into a service that is meant to be free, or at least inexpensive, remains a puzzle.

Coursera and Chegg, the online textbook-rental company, are hoping their new partnership could yield the answer.

"Many instructors have been feeling a little hampered by how they must make their courses so self-contained," said Daphne Koller, one of Coursera's founders. "Even $40 for a textbook is way out of reach for some students, so instructors have had to teach in ways that they are not used to. They are unable to rely on any readings outside of the public domain."

The new partnership, which was announced on Wednesday, will allow Chegg to provide e-textbooks from large publishers like Wiley to participants in select Coursera courses. In Mr. Schatz's MOOC, for example, the chapters of Matter and Interactions required for the course will be available through Chegg's e-reader at no cost. The material cannot be copied and pasted, cannot be printed, and will be available only for the length of the course.

The first two courses to make texts available through the new partnership will be Mr. Schatz's "Introductory Physics I With Laboratory" and Ohio State University's "Writing II: Rhetorical Composing," with the option being rolled out to several dozen other courses beginning in June.

Dan Rosensweig, chief executive officer and president of Chegg, said the arrangement broadens the reach of all the parties involved.

"It's empowering students, giving educators a chance to affect more students, improving learning outcomes, and lowering costs," he said. "This seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand on all of our missions."

Commercial Interests

In turn, the move could also have financial benefits for more than just students. When a course is finished, the participants have the option to purchase the full textbook outright, or the abbreviated Coursera version. They could purchase that book through Chegg, and Coursera would receive a small percentage of the money, similar to how it already benefits from linking to books sold through Amazon.

"There's definitely a commercial side to this," said Stuart Johnson, an executive editor at Wiley who oversees the publisher's physics output. "But it's very experimental, and we have no idea yet what that side's going to be in terms of numbers."

Mr. Johnson said the arrangement also has another advantage for publishers: data.

"Because the free versions of the books will be read through an e-reader, we'll also get information about usage," he said. "How students use the electronic text, how they use the material, will be tracked through software."

Ms. Koller said the partnership could result in a more personalized, data-driven experience for instructors, too, allowing Coursera to improve courses in real time.

Those data will come in handy for Chegg as well. In recent years the company has evolved from a textbook-rental site to what Mr. Rosensweig called a "student hub." What Facebook is to connecting people socially, Mr. Rosensweig wants Chegg to be in connecting students to educational opportunities. The company had recently hinted at exploring MOOCs, and with the new partnership it's dipping a toe into the water.

"In some ways, this is enabling students to take a MOOC through us, just not built by us," Mr. Rosensweig said. "We want any student who wants to or needs to learn, to be able to do that and improve their lives. MOOCs are a really interesting and exciting example of how to do that."