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The textbook rental company BookRenter has carved out a nice little business for itself. Initially a way for students to rent textbooks, in 2010 the company began working directly with schools and their campus bookstores in order to help leverage better group-buying opportunities and have more say in the textbook supply chain. All of that led to the development of a fairly sophisticated technology back-end to help deliver these services -- and now the company is spinning out those services into a new company that launches today: Rafter.

Rafter isn't aiming to just address the textbook (rental or purchase) issue. Rather, this is a much broader approach to solving issues surrounding the problem of course materials. Rafter hopes to be a platform that schools can utilize to help address both the costs and the complexities of course materials -- that includes pricing, copyright, distribution, supply, purchasing, and discovery.

Although this is an enterprise technology solution aimed at campuses, the ones who'll benefit here are students, Rafter argues, as it will help reduce the cost of educational content, textbooks and otherwise. But the new service could be a great boon to professors too, who often make their course material decisions in the dark.

To that end, one of the new tools that the company launches today is called Rafter Discover, offering an incredible amount of information about textbooks and other course materials. Using Rafter Discover, professors will be able to compare prices and content in textbooks, publication dates, examine lifecycle dates, read reviews by other educators, and tap into historic Bookrenter data to see textbook adoption patterns. The site is free and open to any educator.

As I noted last week when I wrote about Textyard's open-sourcing of its campus bookstore Web-scraping tools, this sort of side-by-side price comparison is desperately wanted by students and professors alike.

Rafter says that it will provide unbiased information here to help professors make better textbook and course material decisions. Armed with this sort of data, professors will be able to see if [fill in the blank here with textbook behemoth of choice] really stacks up to the competition -- in terms of price, in terms of longevity, in terms of reviews from their peers. That's something that's bound to upset a textbook publishing and distribution system that has long relied on professors not really knowing about the details -- or their options.

The focus currently is on textbooks, but Rafter says it plans to add other digital content as well. The opportunities here seem particularly exciting as professors will be able to make side-by-side comparisons not just between the different, major textbook publishers but between textbooks and OERs and other online materials.

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