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Is This It?

Might the social networking site CafeScribe be the solution
Higher Ed publishers have been waiting for?

By Evan Schnittman

Last week Salt Lake City based social networking site CafeScribe visited our NY office to demonstrate their service and explain their business model. These kind of meetings happen all the time and I usually sit politely through a series of PowerPoint slides which show how Site X or Product Y appeals to a myriad of users who are in our target demographic, and how these users would love to have access to our content. When discussion of business models comes around, they are usually what I call “personal hovercraft business models” (i.e., this will start earning OUP and its author’s money when everyone is floating around on their own personal hovercraft.)

CaféScribe is the first demo that I have seen since the initial Google Book Search presentation where I have thought – wow, this could work! Simply stated, CafeScribe is part Facebook, part Linkedin, with educational content being the lynchpin to its offering. CafeScribe is designed to be a social networking site much like Facebook – users fill out a profile, provide pictures, add friends, and interact in a community… except the site isn’t filled with stories of beer bongs and sexual exploits – its filled with students, faculty, and others who are taking courses that use a specific textbook.

That’s right, a social networking site that revolves around a textbook!

CafeScribe has built a set of tools that interact with the electronic version of textbooks. Anyone, in a class, at a school, basically anywhere a particular textbook is used can share their own notes and look at the notes of others. It’s a place where students and faculty can coexist as the point of the site isn’t ones social life and exploits, but rather the coursework they have to master in order to get ahead in life. It even offers a rating system for students to rate the notes and highlight their peers – and is set up with a clever system of networking much like Linkedin.

I realize this may a bit over the top, but I believe that this may be the magic bullet solution to the most confounding conundrum that faces higher education publishers today; why the universe’s most wired and electronic oriented audience, college students, have consistently rejected every effort to get them to use electronic textbooks?

CafeScribe, by tapping deeply into the ethos of the “screenager” (stolen from the CafeScribe folks) generation and their endless fascination with posting about themselves and reading similar posts from others, has created a set of tools that enable students and faculty to highlight, notate, annotate, and summarize the readings and exercises in their text.

The way it works starts with a course and a text. Students must buy the textbook in ebook form at CafeScribe’s ebookstore – or no access is given to any of the discussions, notes, or content revolving around that textbook. After purchasing the book, students can invite friends to interact with them about the book – (i.e., create a study group). Those friends must have purchased the book as well or they won’t be granted access. Students can then begin interacting with the text and set the level of access to their work – be it to no one, everyone in the world, or several layers in-between. Furthermore, friends and people with access to the notes can rank the quality of the notes and the quality of the note provider. Sorting and summary tools are also available which make it easy for students to access the content they want to review and even allows them to shoot back into the text to reread. The tools are impressive and slick.

As we all know, there have been a whole lot of impressive tools applied to electronic content over the years – yet college students have still resoundingly rejected pretty much everything thrown at them. So why do I think CafeScribe might just be the answer – especially when there are already several social networking sites focused on books, reading and learning?

There are three reasons: Need, Want, and Network effect.

Students need their textbook in most university courses and they have found dozens of ingenious ways to get those textbooks at below market price in order to save money. This has come in a variety of forms from the ubiquity of used books to the sharing of books in study groups to the bulk purchasing of illicit editions from low cost markets in Asia. Students need a cost effective way to get their books and most publishers steeply discount (around 50%) the electronic version of their textbooks.

Furthermore, students want to interact in communities. This is proven over and over and over with seemingly endless stream social networking sites. Students – “screenagers,” make up a solid majority of the users of these sites. Learning in groups has been going on for years before there was a Myspace or Facebook – go to any university library on a weeknight and you will see packs of students “studying.” Most are in groups and they have the same books open and they are socializing and studying at the same time. They are swapping notes, asking each other questions and commenting on who is smart or not. This is the bricks and mortal precursor to CafeScribe.

Finally, and most importantly, the network effect of a social networking site gives this service an enormous edge over anything else I have ever seen. Think about it this way – if this works it will be because student A told student B, who told students C, D, and E, and so on and so on and soon, through pure geometric progression, you have a network effect. With the students driving demand publishers aren’t relying on retailers, wholesalers, or their own hackneyed efforts to get the students hearts and minds. This service relies upon students finding it valuable and if that is achieved, there will be no stopping it.

The fly in the ointment is of course the publishers – who have to give over their content. However, the folks at CafeScribe are very savvy and realize they have to get the books and make it easy for the publisher. They have responded to this need by offering tremendously good terms and even offered to pay for any conversion costs that might occur.

So, is this it?
• A social networking site that manages to use content, paid content, as the crux of its operation.
• Students, through clever tools and the social networking ethos, interact with textbook content in ways that have only worked offline in the past.
• Higher education textbooks, often derided as overly expensive artifacts of the past – yet still universally adopted as the primary learning tool – has an electronic model that publishers and students can agree on.

I think it just might be.

Evan’s PictureEvan Schnittman is OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions. His career in publishing spans nearly 20 years and includes positions as varied as Executive Vice President at The Princeton Review and Professor at New York University’s Center for Publishing. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.

Recent Comments

  1. stephen hoopes

    Great article. I wish CafeScribe was around when I was in school.

  2. Toby Long

    I beg to differ. This program is a tremendous piece of crap. I used it in a class last semester. The program crashed three times in the first fifteen minutes of my timed finals. It continued to crash throuhout the test. The biggest disappointment of all is the FACT that you must be logged onto the internet just to read your assignments. No more reading at convenient moments. No Sony or Kindle readers are in their plans. The list of issues go on and on. When I called tech support on multiple occasions the answer was always “We are aware of this issue and we are working on it!” I am sadly disappointed.

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