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CliffsNotes Goes Digital, Personalized...For Some Products

The digital and personalized-learning revolutions have started to catch up with even last-minute study sessions.

CliffsNotes, the yellow-cover study guide series familiar to generations of students, announced this week the release of a new digital-subscription service promising students customized supports and progress tracking. 

The new approach, however, will apply to the company's test-prep and subject-review offerings, but not its more well-known literature review guides, highlighting the developing contours and nuance of the exploding personalized-learning market.

"We are very proud of the CliffsNotes brand—its history and ever-engaging content written for students by real educators, as well as its enduring reputation as the go-to study-guide series," said Bruce Nichols, a senior vice president and publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which acquired CliffsNotes in 2012, in a statement. "Now, we are thrilled to take our guides to the next level."

The new product line is the result of a partnership between HMH and ed-tech company BenchPrep.  The first offerings will focus on SAT preparation and include "interactive study guides" for algebra, anatomy and physiology, and biology courses.

The release comes amid a mini-wave of new online test-prep offerings that aim to provide students with customized help based on their own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.  In June 2015, the College Board, which makes the SAT exam, debuted a free online practice tool developed in conjunction with personalized-learning pioneer Khan Academy. And in January of this year, the nonprofit organization behind the ACT college entrance exam released a low-cost online test prep service, also developed in conjunction with BenchPrep.

In an interview, Nichols of HMH said all present strong alternatives to the "very expensive" printed and in-person options long available in the test-prep market. The company is excited about partnering with BenchPrep, he said, because the relationship will provide HMH the capacity to quickly develop new personalized materials for a wide variety of tests, should it choose.

The company's test-prep and subject-review materials have been "the growing side of the business" since being acquired by HMH, Nichols said. All told, they represent about half of the revenue that CliffsNotes has generated for the parent company, he said.

For a long time, though, those materials were printed books—and, more recently, static e-books that essentially amounted to a scanned version of the print material—that students could work through (and eventually score) on their own.

Those offerings were ripe for a personalized, digital upgrade, Nichols said. The new subscription products, which will generally cost around $30 per month, will leverage technology to identify why students are making mistakes, point those students to tailored supports, reinforce students' progress with the questions that make sense for them, and provide students with data tracking their progress.

But such strategies may not make sense for the company's more-famous lit review guides, Nichols said.

CliffsNotes, originally established in 1958, has made those materials available online for years. The company's website now averaging 4.5 million unique visitors per month, according to the HMH release.

But while personalized and interactive approaches work great for reference materials (Nichols cited the example of turning printed field guides for birds and trees into a digital app, which readers say has provided them with a better experience), the publisher has learned the same is not necessarily true for literature.

When it comes to reading, Nichols said, people still want an "immersive" experience that allows them to lose themselves in the text. E-books enhanced with extra bells and whistles often seem to detract from that.

"For the most part people haven't cared about those extra features," he said.

And for those who don't have enough time to fully immerse themselves in To Kill a Mockingbird, but need to quickly learn about the plot, themes, and main characters?

"I think it would be hard to personalize the lit guides," Nichols said. "We're not going to write your paper for you."


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