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How MOOCs can offer opportunities for textbook sales

The rapid rise in popularity of massive online open courses (MOOCs) may benefit students and textbook authors alike by increasing access to affordable higher education for students while creating new opportunities for boosting textbook sales.

MOOCs are free online classes offered by companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Coursera and Udacity were founded by Stanford professors, and edX is run collaboratively by MIT and Harvard. These companies partner with various universities in order to offer courses to millions of students worldwide—and the list of participating universities is growing.

The MOOC concept is rapidly growing in popularity with students as well. According to Coursera’s website, they currently offer 323 courses to their roughly 2.8 million students, and the available courses cover a wide range of topics. While edX and Udacity students are awarded certificates of mastery for receiving a passing grade in a MOOC, some MOOCs are now beginning to be offered for college credit. San Jose State University, for example, recently partnered with Udacity to begin offering credit to students who complete any of the three MOOCs being offered as part of a pilot program. Unlike traditional MOOCs, the courses in San Jose State’s pilot program are offered for a nominal fee—$150 per course according to the campus news outlet SJSU Today.

As the goal of MOOCs is to provide high-quality education for little or no cost in order to keep courses widely accessible, some publishers and textbook authors are collaborating with MOOC companies to provide affordable textbook options–a strategy that offers both authors and publishers the potential for increased textbook sales. The Science & Technology Books group within Elsevier Publishing Company, for instance, has offered free access to textbook content to students in edX’s Circuits and Electronics course and the Heterogeneous Parallel Programming course offered by Coursera. The textbook content for these MOOCs was available through their online shopping site, the Elsevier Store ( The edX students were given a static copy of an online version of the textbook for the course with a discount being offered to those who chose to purchase the full online version or a print copy of the book. The Coursera students were given access to pre-published chapters of their course’s textbook when they pre-ordered the book.

“In both cases, Elsevier saw an overall increase in sales for the titles used for and promoted through the courses,” said Elsevier publicist Michelle McMahon. “The increase in sales was not limited to only the Elsevier Store, but occurred in other sales channels as well.”

For publishing houses like Elsevier, working with MOOCs is an exciting opportunity. “Offering different types of access to our content is a win for everyone,” stated Suzanne BeDell, managing director of Science & Technology Books for Elsevier. “It’s an ideal partnership because students are able to access free content, and the authors, MOOCs and publishers are able to drive additional book sales to those students that would like a copy of their own.”

The staggering number of students enrolled in MOOCs presents greater opportunities for sales.

Flat World Knowledge has also experienced a sales bump as a result of providing textbook content to MOOC students. Students enrolled in edX’s Introduction to Solid State Chemistry course are given free access to an online version of Bruce Averill and Patricia Eldredge’s Chemistry: Principles, Patterns, and Applications, with the option to purchase more interactive online versions and print copies of the book. Flat World’s strategy is to target the roughly ten percent of MOOC students who are active participants in a given course. While that may be a small minority of the students enrolled in a class, it can still constitute a large number of potential buyers. As a case in point, MIT News reports that there were 28,512 registered students for Introduction to Solid State Chemistry in the 2012 fall session, about 6,000 of which were active users. According to Flat World Knowledge CEO Chris Etesse, more than twenty percent of those active users chose to purchase a digital or print version of Chemistry: Principles, Patterns, and Applications.

Like Elsevier, Flat World Knowledge is excited about collaborating with MOOC companies in the future, and Etesse is interested in exploring the role of textbooks in the MOOC experience. “What we don’t know yet is if there were any differences in outcomes among people who accessed or purchased our content and those who didn’t,” Etesse said. “That’s an important next step.”

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