Interview | Jill Ambrose: Why Students Are Getting CourseSmart

Driven to make companies succeed, Jill Ambrose has worked with CafePress,, Corbis, AVID Enterprises, and Disney among others—where she has held leadership positions and pushed growth and profitability. As Chief Marketing Officer for CourseSmart, Jill talks about where the world’s largest e-textbook provider is headed, how they are unique, how she financed her own education, and some of her personal thoughts on the future of education. 

Victor: What is CourseSmart, and how about some brief background on its relationship with the major college publishers?  

Jill: CourseSmart is the world’s largest provider of eTextbooks and digital course materials, with a catalog of more than 20,000 eTextbooks, or about 90 percent of all core higher education textbooks in use today.

CourseSmart’s primary goal has always been to connect content providers with content users at the lowest cost possible in an effort to increase access to course materials to improve learning outcomes.

CourseSmart was founded in March 2007 when a group of six higher education publishers partnered together to offer students a new choice for buying and accessing their required textbooks online. The publishers included: Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons, Houghton Mifflin and Bedford, Freeman and Worth Publishing

In June 2008, Cengage Learning acquired the Houghton Mifflin College Division. Today, there are five publisher owners of CourseSmart: Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons and Bedford, Freeman and Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan)

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for—who is the audience?

Jill: CourseSmart offers course services to a variety of higher education stakeholders, including students, instructors/faculty, campus bookstores and institutions:

  • Students (Direct): CourseSmart provides all students in North America the ability to purchase their required course materials as eTextbooks at up to 60 percent off the price of new print textbooks.
  • Instructors (Indirect): CourseSmart is the only eTextbook provider that provides instructors with free access to evaluate 90 percent of all core higher education eTextbooks and eResources.
  • College Bookstores: CourseSmart distributes through college bookstores, allowing students to purchase digital course materials from their campus store.
  • Institutions (B2B): CourseSmart integrates digital course materials with an institution’s learning management system, student information system or campus portal, enabling faculty and students to integrate their digital course materials directly into their workflow. Current integrations include Arizona State University, University of Michigan and Western Governors University to name a few.

Victor: What are the benefits of using CourseSmart?

Jill: There are a wide variety of reasons behind why students, faculty and institutions are migrating to eTextbooks. The reasons most commonly cited are: savings, convenience, improved learning outcomes and efficiency.  A few specific benefits for each audience include:

Students Benefits:

  • Guaranteed Savings – Saves money since CourseSmart eTextbooks cost an average of 60 percent less than a new printed textbook.
  • Confidence – Assures that you are purchasing the exact materials assigned by instructors for use in class.
  • Instant Access – Allows for digital course materials to be accessed anytime, day or night.
  • Digital Convenience – Provides full text search, copy/paste, annotate, integration with most word processing programs, and the ability to print just what is needed.
  • Choice – Multiple formats available that support anytime, anywhere access to course materials on a variety of computers and devices.
  • Fidelity – CourseSmart eTextbooks maintain the valuable aspects of the print textbook including page numbers and page layout, as well as the ability to annotate and highlight passages.

Partners and Institution Benefits:

  • One partner – A single agreement and implementation can provide the exact digital content a partner or institution needs across multiple publishers.
  • One user experience – A common user experience across eTextbooks that is easy for students and faculty to learn and use.
  • Simple integration – A learning tools interoperability compliant, standards-based method to integrate CourseSmart systems into existing workflows such as point of sale systems, student information systems, campus portals and learning management systems.
  • Speed to market – The fastest way to offer digital course materials to improve access and lower costs for students and instructors.

Faculty Benefits:

  • Evaluation – The easiest, fastest and most eco-friendly way to evaluate possible textbooks for adoption.
  • Comprehensive Content – A complete view, across publishers, of available textbooks and all of the corresponding supporting materials.
  • Accessibility – Anytime, anywhere access to the textbook faculty have assigned to the class.
  • Student Support – Easy ways to inform students about a new, low cost choice to purchase assigned course materials including tools to link from the syllabus and learning management system directly to materials in use.

Publisher Benefits:

  • Complete eTextbook solution – A simple way to make your complete catalog of textbooks available as eTextbooks.
  • New channel – Beyond eTextbooks, a new way to distribute new and innovative e-learning materials.
  • Support for all devices – A way to insure that your content is available in many formats on a wide range of devices in a rapidly changing market.
  • Lower cost option for students – A way to provide the market with lower-cost digital options via a trusted partner.

Victor: What’s the purchase process and where is it available?

Jill: CourseSmart offers students and faculty an easy, streamlined way to purchase eTextbooks and digital course materials directly from CourseSmart’s website.  The process is simple: 1) use the search or advanced search function to locate the desired eTextbook or eResource, and 2) add to cart and check out.  Once purchased, the materials are available immediately.

Additionally, CourseSmart recently took the purchasing process one step further by announcing its industry-first social commerce shop tab on the CourseSmart Facebook page.  CourseSmart understands the busy lifestyle of a college student, and the new shop tab offers students the opportunity to purchase their eTextbooks from a site where they already spend a lot of time.

CourseSmart also distributes through college bookstores, allowing students to purchase digital course materials directly from their campus store.

Within our institutional integrations, students can easily purchase their digital course materials through and through their campus portal. In addition, some institutions purchase course materials from CourseSmart and provide the materials as part of the student’s tuition.

Victor: How much does it cost?

Jill: The cost of digital course materials varies depending on the title but savings can add up to 60 percent off the price of new traditional print textbooks.

Victor: How is CourseSmart unique from other similar products and services?

Jill: CourseSmart is unique in the marketplace for several key reasons:

  • Content: CourseSmart’s catalog includes more than 20,000 eTextbooks and represents 90 percent of all core higher education textbooks in use today – the world’s largest provider.
  • Price: Upfront savings of up to 60 percent when compared to new print textbooks.
  • Device Agnostic: Students can access their eTextbooks from any web-enabled device and through CourseSmart’s Android and iPad apps.
  • Page Fidelity: CourseSmart eTextbooks mirror the experience of the print version of the textbook through page fidelity; ensuring students are literally on the same page as instructors and classmates that may be using print alternatives.
  • Accessibility: 80 percent of CourseSmart’s top selling titles have been optimized to be fully accessible for instructors and students with print related disabilities.
  • Markets: CourseSmart is the only course materials provider that serves 4 key markets, including students, faculty, bookstores and institutions.

Victor: What are your personal thoughts on education these days?

Jill: The landscape of education is rapidly changing. Economic pressures on education, access to education, as well as time constraints that both faculty and students face are real issues that need to be addressed. Our future society deserves to have resolution to these issues so that they can succeed. It is critically important that players in the education space recognize these challenges and adapt quickly. Affordability, accessibility, mobility, productivity and the improvement in learning outcomes are solutions to some of these problems. CourseSmart is leading the effort to provide many of these solutions. Where our institutional or publisher partners are better equipped to provide other solutions, we develop enabling processes or products to assist them with their efforts.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to CourseSmart’s development?

Jill: Education is not a “one size fits all approach.” I personally had to finance my own college education. In doing so, it took ingenuity because many of the systems and services that exist today were not available then.

I worked full-time in order to finance my education. I was also very active in extra-curricular activities. This meant that I could not always commit to full course loads. This forced me to be creative in how I managed my time as well as my credit hours.

When the courses at my University were not available at the time I needed them, I attended community colleges in the summers to earn the required credits.

What we do at CourseSmart is look at all of the types of students and faculty, and develop flexible products and services to meet their needs. Whether they are at a traditional 4-year university, a distance learning institution, or at a Community College, we make sure we understand their issues and accordingly, create the right experiences.

We also look at their other needs regarding mobility, affordability and productivity and ensure that those differences are addressed.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education, and how does CourseSmart fit into that future landscape?

Jill: At CourseSmart, we believe that eTextbooks and other digital course materials are the future, as more and more students expect an integrated learning experience within their campus ecosystem, and the ability to access those materials anytime, anywhere. In fact, according to the just released ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, more than half of students (58 percent) say they learn more in blended learning environments with some online components, and 43 percent of students agree that their institution needs more technology.  Understanding this information, we anticipate that over time the higher education landscape will further adapt to meet the increasing digital needs of today’s students by integrating more technology like eTextbooks into the environment.

Additionally, we see a few other trends on the horizon that we are tracking and innovating at CourseSmart to stay apace with as well:

  • Continued proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices and campus Wi-Fi will drive eTextbook and other digital materials growth.
  • A significant focus on accessibility to meet the needs of persons with print related disabilities, as it is imperative for companies that provide digital course materials for higher education. In fact, just last year, CourseSmart provided the industry’s first online reader accessible to the blind.
  • Richer functionality of eTextbooks, offering digital products with deeper interactivity will be a significant growth area.
  • Growth of course materials with integrated assessment and automatic feedback for students will improve learning outcomes.  CourseSmart has >3000.
  • eResources: an automated, integrated grading system that provides real-time feedback to ensure comprehension of key learnings by the user. CourseSmart’s publishers offer eResources in the form of study guides, lab manuals, workbooks, animated timelines, electronic texts in non-CourseSmart formats, etc.

CourseSmart will continue to lead the market by offering: significant savings, device agnostic access both online and offline, superior reading experience, advanced app technology, and unmatched campus integration.

Victor: Any quirky or even funny anecdote you can tell that represents the spirit of CourseSmart?

Jill: During NCAA and any other collegiate playoff seasons, there was a lot of competition, antics and pranks that occurred in the office.

We all have pennants around the office that represent our alma maters. Some of them go missing, or are moved during this playoff time period.

Also at the Fall Semester start, we are all required to share college photos. This year, they were plastered on our cubicles and office doors. Some of them are hysterical!

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of CourseSmart? 

Jill: Well, first off, I would say that CourseSmart takes pride in really working to understand our audience and continually developing our products to best serve students and faculty alike. We take our vision seriously and that is to increase access to education by becoming the leading global distributor of digital course materials for faculty and students.

Victor: What makes you say that?

As an industry leader, that means consistently making sure we’re serving the space as top innovators, which we’re proud to say we’ve been successful in doing thus far. We understand that today’s students and faculty have busy, on-the-go lifestyles and that anytime, anywhere access to resources is critical.

On that front, our industry-first developments including mobile applications for the iPhone (2009), iPad (2010) and Android (2011) were created as a direct result of the increasingly mobile needs of today’s consumer.  Additionally, our industry-first development of our single platform eReader in HTML5 took mobility and access a step further in allowing the consumer to experience the same productivity features whether users are online or offline.  Ultimately, these advancements have exemplified CourseSmart’s commitment to providing unprecedented access to our consumers.

CourseSmart is also the only digital course provider that can offer eResources from multiple publishers.  eResources are highly engaging and interactive learning products that make faculty teaching more effective and student learning more engaging by providing immediate feedback to the student.  We strongly believe that eResources help facilitate an integrated and engaging learning experience, bringing faculty and students together in the digital landscape within higher education and making a more robust learning experience for all.

All of these efforts, developments and resources – coupled with the monetary savings of up to 60 percent off the cost of traditional print texts – make CourseSmart a clear leader in the education technology marketplace, with a strong foothold on the ever-changing needs and wants of today’s student and faculty audience.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

  • Melissa Brown Wetherby


    I find it sad that CourseSmart materials are not accessible to text readers such as Kurzweil and Read and Write Gold therefore eliminating a large part of the student population who could benefit from their services.

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