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But are digital textbooks a safe bet?
When it comes to e-books, there's no question that the market is moving in the digital direction (as Borders' recent Chapter 11 filing indicates). But textbooks are a completely different animal, and the question of whether students want digital textbooks is drawing a wide range of competing opinions and explanations. The textbook rental industry has all but staked its future on the notion that students aren't interested in electronic textbooks. When I spoke to BookRenter CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia last month, he said that he believes that the textbook rental industry is exploding the way it is because students want a physical book that they can hold in their hands, not a digital textbook that they can't interact with.
But today the digital textbook industry is getting a big vote of confidence from top publishers with Inkling's announcement that it has raised a significant round of funding from McGraw-Hill and Pearson, two of the largest educational publishers in the world.
We covered Inkling last summer when the company raised its Series A round and got support from Sequoia Capital, Kapor Capital, Sherpalo Ventures, and Felicis Ventures. The company is giving a shot in the arm to the digital textbook industry by shaking out the old blank-text PDF e-book model and making electronic textbooks interactive and social. Using the Inkling platform, students can share notes and comments from any location and can see notes from their peers and professors. Additional Inkling features include an intuitive search engine that allows students to locate specific information in their textbooks, interactive media in every title, and assessments that allow students to measure their understanding.
"To date, every single digital textbook has been attempting to work within the constraints of the printed book model," Inkling co-founder and CEO Matt MacInnis told me over the phone. "Digital textbooks today come in the form of stripped down text and PDFs on screens. It's a usability nightmare. Of course students don't want that. We're really looking to reinvent the digital textbook."
To illustrate the comparison between print textbooks and digital textbooks to date, MacInnis likened it to putting a Chevy Nova next to an 8-horse stage coach and asking someone which one they prefer. Choosing the stage coach doesn't mean the model is better or that people aren't interested in innovation, it just means the current alternative still leaves much to be desired.
"With Inkling, what we see is an opportunity to reinvent student’s experience with our instructional content," said Vineet Madan, VP of McGraw-Hill Learning Ecosystems, in an email. "Done right, this should promote higher engagement levels which should drive improved retention and eventual student performance. The catalyst for reinventing the user experience is the wave of touch-based tablet devices that has been ushered in by the iPad in the last year. What tablets enable is an instant-on, constant connectivity, full-color, interactive experience – married with instructional content it opens the door for new learning experiences."
Last year, McGraw-Hill acquired Tegrity, which allows students to search and view lectures from their college courses.
But there's another problem on the horizon: fed up with students distractedly scanning Facebook and scanning their iPhones, more and more professors are banning electronics from the classroom altogether. MacInnis believes that while such bans are a "sorry excuse for protecting old ways of teaching and learning," more and more learning is taking place outside of the classroom so that students don't necessarily have to take their iPads to class, but rather can use Inkling books to interact with the content, their peers, and even their professors outside of class.
The company currently has 14 titles and will be adding much more in the coming months, including the top 100 undergraduate titles from McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 24 of the most popular business titles from Pearson, a full line of medical textbooks, and more.
The new funds from this round will be used to scale the business and add to its 40-person team.
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