Chegg Unleashes Digital Textbook Rentals, Aims To Be 'LinkedIn For College Students'

The textbook-disseminating giant has announced that digital textbooks will now be available for sale and rental through its website, starting immediately, just in time for the start of the school semester.

"By 2015, 25 percent of all textbooks will be digital," Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig predicted. "The tide suggests that anything that can be digitized will be digitized."

For me, the availability of e-textbooks from many of the largest publishers was the most important part of Chegg's announcement, but Rosensweig seemed far more excited about the newly-updated website.

Chegg has integrated some of their recent acquisitions, including the class-and-professor rater CourseRank, study guide marketplace Notehall and student-to-student homework assistant Cramster into their main site. They hope that this will make them a one-stop portal for both acquiring textbooks and studying from them, a "LinkedIn for college students," as Rosensweig put it. The website facelift is also part of an effort to encourage students to return to Chegg more regularly: the hope is to make Chegg "relevant 300 days per year rather than just at the beginning of semesters," Rosenweig said.

To become a network as large as LinkedIn, a website needs members, of course. Rosensweig claims that Chegg, out of all the relevant education sites, has the "largest network of connected students" in the U.S., with millions of active users at 7,000 different college campuses (Facebook, which got its start on college campuses and boasts over 750 million members, is still the top dog).

Rosenweig wants his company to leverage that network to help kids both do better in their classes and graduate school with less debt. He expects to accomplish the latter both by saving kids money on books and by making them money through the sale of their expertise online; but let's focus on getting better grades, first.

Chegg has weaved CourseRank into its newly dubbed "social education platform." Students on Chegg can now rate their classes and professors and share grade distributions with other students in their university. Because it is now integrated with the textbook seller Chegg, students can also check to see which books are used in a given class and how much those books generally cost when deciding on the relative value of the course.

The second service integrated into Chegg is Notehall, a marketplace on which students can buy and sell class and textbook notes. Besides boosting test readiness and GPAs, Rosensweig emphasized that, as more than 50 percent of students graduate college with debt, Notehall is important as it can help excellent students earn money for their work buy selling their smarts (whether the practice goes against school policy, however, is another matter).

Chegg is actively recruiting and vetting student note-takers who have received high marks in popular courses; they then pay those students to write and post study guides for their courses, which Chegg sells to other students who perhaps missed a lecture or two or who want difficult material explained to them by fellow undergrads. The student who wrote the study guide gets a percentage of each sale, and Chegg keeps the rest.

Chegg's platform could even open up a cross-college marketplace where students on different campuses are buying and selling their study guides: a solid note-taker could make money not only from students who go to his or her school, but from any student who was using the same book. A Stanford upperclassman's notes on a biology textbook can be just as useful for a Harvard student across the country studying from the same book.

All of this -- in addition to a Homework Help portal where students pay to get answers to their homework questions from "experts," a system that has potential to be abused -- makes Chegg confident that it can become a highly useful -- and highly profitable -- worldwide digital study group, the kind of thing that the much-maligned BlackBoard should be but never became.

As students continue to rage against impractically high textbook prices and look for new ways to save money, I expect both physical rentals and eBooks to keep gaining popularity, which is good news for Chegg. But what happens if a huge player, like Amazon, Google or Apple, decides to compete? Will features like CourseRank and Notehall be enough to keep college students on Chegg?

The success of the new integrations with CourseRank, Notehall and Cramster, on the other hand, will depend greatly on whether Chegg can get all of its textbook renters and buyers to stay on the site after orientation week. Class ratings, study guides and Homework Help are only as effective as the number of qualified, non-trolling users who contribute. If Chegg can get even a small proportion of their millions of consumers to sit in on their Internet study hall, they'll have something really educational and valuable.

Yet questions remain about the legality of selling notes and "homework help" online, especially if Homework Help devolves into students simply posting their unsolved math equations online and hoping for a solution. Chegg told The Huffington Post, "Our community is comprised of both educators and students, all of whom must adhere to our strict honor code. We proactively and continuously remind members not to cheat or plagiarize. We take academic misconduct very seriously and in our 7+ years of being online, there have been very few reports of cheating or plagiarism. In each of these instances, we worked with the educator or academic institution to remove all violations from our site and block the student from any future use of Chegg’s Homework Help."

There is also the question of the adoption of these features in the first place: If Cheggers see the website's newly integrated platform as another attempt by a website to add a social component where it didn't really need one, then Chegg will have made a huge mistake: It will have spent a lot of money on a product that, unlike their textbooks, they cannot return.