Brick-and-click retailer Barnes & Noble (Nasdaq: BNBN) announced an initiative Tuesday to develop Barnes & Noble University, a customized Internet site for online learning.
The bookseller is making a minority investment in notHarvard.com, a company that specializes in developing Internet universities and “eduCommerce” Web sites. Users will be able to access free online classes after purchasing a product online.
“We consider distance learning a natural extension of Barnes & Noble.com’s core business,” said Barnesandnoble.com Vice Chairman Steve Riggio. “The Internet is clearly a very large commercial medium, but its great promise is to become a portal for the sharing of knowledge and content.”
The “free online education resource” will address a variety of subjects and be based on the books currently being sold online. Courses are slated to begin mid-July and may be taught by noted authors.
“Our plan is to create an exciting learning environment where many courses will be based upon the best books in the field. We additionally intend to invite the authors of those books to become instructors, offering them the ability to publish additional content in both electronic form as well as through print on demand technology,” Riggio said.
Education or E-Marketing
Not everyone is embracing the company’s plan to offer online classes. Some critics argue that the use of the term “university” is deceptive and that the new site is little more than a marketing tool to sell books. These observers contend that without official accreditation or the ability for students to obtain class credit for their work, such online educational programs provide little value to those seeking a university-level education.
Gus Carlson, vice president of corporate communications for Barnes & Noble, agrees with the critics. “It’s not meant to replace higher education,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Our site is designed to provide a convenient way to learn something that interests our customers.”
According to Carlson, the education initiative is part of the company’s “drive to become more than a place to conduct transactions but rather a destination.” With the help of notHarvard.com, Carlson hopes customers will come to their site “to learn, have some fun, and hopefully buy a book.”
More Sales Opportunities
Establishing online courses branded with the Barnes & Noble name and based on the company’s product line provides the book giant an opportunity to generate new sales in the highly competitive online book selling business. Barnes & Noble currently competes with the likes of online retailing giant Amazon.com and brick-and-mortar nemesis Borders, which also sells its products online and in retail stores.
Under its investment agreement with notHarvard.com, Barnes & Noble will also become the primary distributor of course materials for other branded online universities developed by notHarvard.com. The Austin, Texas-based company has already launched online eduCommerce sites for Jobs.com, Pervasive Software, Motorola/Metrowerks, and TalkCity.
Taking a Stake in Online Education
Barnes & Noble is among a handful of venture capital partners that notHarvard.com has lined up to raise $26 million (US$) in their second round of financing. Other investors include Austin Ventures, Adam Dell’s Impact Venture Partners and Merrill Lynch KECALP. The latest venture capital round brings notHarvard.com’s total funding to $34 million since it launched last July.
“There is no question that eduCommerce is a strategic asset for companies looking to provide greater context to their sales and marketing efforts,” said Adam Dell, General Partner at Impact Venture Partners. “EduCommerce is the ultimate permission-based sales and marketing tool that generates additive revenue streams.”