Chegg to bridge gap between digital and physical textbooks

It’s pretty well accepted that digital textbooks and other e-learning tools are the future for education. But the transition has taken place slowly: Digital textbooks have been around for a decade and only now are starting to infiltrate the mainstream. However, you can tell just by reading the comments on some of our other coverage of this industry that it will take time for some to adjust to this reality.
Chegg, a Santa Clara, Calif.–based company that made its name in textbook rentals, has made its first piece of software that it says will aid in the transition by offering digital textbooks that act an awful lot like physical textbooks. Except, you know, you won’t have to drag 50 pounds of paper and binding around with you.
On Wednesday the company is announcing its first digital textbook e-reader. No, not a device: Chegg actually doesn’t care how you get its software. The key is that the eTextbook Reader is written in HTML5, so students can access their digital books on any platform: a campus library computer, a phone or their own laptop. Chegg’s eTextbook Reader is optimized for viewing on an iPad, Mac and a PC, but Chegg product manager Brent Tworetzky said other optimized platforms (Android and others, we imagine) are coming soon.
Now, there are other digital textbook apps and readers out there already, but Chegg hopes to stand out by mimicking or improving the same behaviors students currently use when reading textbooks and especially when studying them. That means, for example, enabling students to navigate an e-textbook the way they would a physical book, whether that’s by looking through an index, scanning the table of contents, flipping through the pages for notes left inside, or visually scanning for a particular chapter. And the software tries to imitate these physical book behaviors so that every different kind of reader or studier is covered. That way no one can say Chegg doesn’t work with their particular method of learning. Said Tworetzky:

We need to be able to solve for the student who highlights a lot, and the one that puts marks in the margins; for students that like to study in groups, for those that make study guides. . . . We wanted to make a digital textbook that supports all those behaviors. Some students prefer physical books, but we’ve created a reader that students prefer over a physical book.

What makes Chegg’s eTextbook Reader a study tool and not just another way to read e-books are three useful features. There is a highlighting feature that pops up a menu with the option to look up a word in a dictionary or Wikipedia, and it has the ability to save highlighted sections as notes. You can also make an “x” or “?” in the margins or post digital sticky notes that you can reference later. There is also a crowdsourced Q&A feature that lets you put a question out to the million-member Chegg community and receive almost-instant replies (which are ranked based on reputation), and there is a feature called Key Highlight, which, when turned on, shows you the most important parts of a chapter or book based on areas of the text that see the most student activity (highlights, note-taking or lookups).
The crowdsourcing, the customization, the ability to access your books anywhere: All of these are great ideas we normally associate with the web. Chegg has subtly molded them to fit our old-school study habits. Helping students cross that bridge between physical and digital textbooks is a great way to approach the coming transition to a fully digital education world someday.
And luckily, Chegg is not starting from scratch. Though this is its first foray into e-reader software, it already has an army of college students for whom Chegg is a go-to resource for buying or renting textbooks. Getting enough of them on board for eTextbook Reader shouldn’t be too much trouble. But still, Chegg knows that this transition isn’t going to be fast for everyone.
“Though e-textbooks are a nascent business, by 2015, at least 25 percent of students will be using some form of e-textbooks,” said CEO Dan Rosensweig. Getting in on it now is good timing, especially as more and more companies — like, say, Apple — find their way into the space.