E-commerce is still the main web buzzword, but some online retailers, such as booksellers Barnes & Noble, are turning to a new variant - edu-commerce.
Since its launch in May 1997, Barnes&Noble.com has become the world's sixth largest e-commerce site but it faces fierce competition from the likes of Amazon.com. Students regularly use Barnes & Noble's bricks and mortar stores as study venues, so offering online courses was a logical progression for the firm. Anthony Astarita, Barnes & Noble's vice-president of corporate finance, said it had decided to focus on the personal development sector, rather than professional development or degrees.
When considering partners for the Barnes & Noble University, which went live a few weeks ago, Mr Astarita said the company was sold on the edu-commerce concept promoted by the Texas-based notHarvard.com.
In Barnes & Noble's case, linking books with learning by wrapping free online courses around its core products made sense. The bookseller has acquired a minority stake in notHarvard.com.
Consumers can sign up for one of 35 courses being offered by Barnes & Noble in six areas: arts and leisure, literary studies, business, life improvement, health and wellness, and technology.
Mr Astarita admitted that the venture was, at this point, "a marketing device, pure and simple", but added that the intention was to offer customers something of value, in return for which they would buy the associated book or CD. "We're not trying to be sneaky," he added.
The six-lesson course "Walking through Shakespeare: The comedies" strongly recommends, for example, that students buy The Riverside Shakespeare Volume One, at $60.75, with two other titles suggested as further reading.
Course authors are often also the instructors, who along with assistants will respond to emails and conduct online lessons.
"We want as much interaction as possible between teachers and students, and between students themselves," Mr Astarita said.
He said the company was pleased with the response - thousands have signed up. "Many are new customers who decided to go to Barnes & Noble specifically because of the free courses and said that they will shop with us because we offer something our competitors do not."
Barnes & Noble could in the future set its sights on the type of courses offered by better established distance-learning providers.
Professional development is likely to be the next goal, and Mr Astarita said that this would require a partner company. Once customers started taking courses at this level, Barnes and Noble would be "in a better position to 'upsell' them to a degree programme". However, he said that such a move would require a relationship with a major university.
Mr Astarita said that the company was gaining credibility as an education provider, which will help it survive the inevitable shakedown of US companies trying to sign up students for online courses. "It's going to be tough for many companies because it's a tremendously crowded space, but it does bode well that the investment community, and the community in general, feels that the internet is really going to enable distance learning like nothing before."
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