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Elsevier, the academic publishing giant, announced on Tuesday that it will offer a free version of one of its textbooks this fall to students who register for Circuits & Electronics, a massive open online course (MOOC) being offered by edX.

The publisher actually made available a free version of the textbook during the first iteration of that course last fall, with little fanfare. The results are in: Rather than prompting scores of traditional students in similar courses to pass on purchasing the textbook in favor of registering for the MOOC and freeloading, Elsevier found that providing a “static” digital version of the text for free to MOOC students actually galvanized sales elsewhere.

“The version that is online on edX is a static version -- a PNG file, which is not downloadable, not manipulable and doesn’t have all the flexibility that a true full e-book does,” said Dan O’Connell, a publicist for Elsevier. “So we found that actually it isn’t cutting into, and in fact it seems to be elevating, sales.”

To help drive actual sales of the textbook, edX will include a link from the Circuits & Electronics syllabus to Elsevier’s website, where registrants can buy a “discounted copy” of the print version of the text (or the more dynamic electronic version). Update, 12:10 p.m.: Elsevier will give edX a percentage of the sales revenue generated by the referral, according to an edX spokesperson.

This is not the first example of content publishers attempting to attach themselves to MOOCs, which have been the talk of the higher-ed industry since the fall. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, one title from MIT Press saw a spike in sales after it was listed as “recommended reading” for a MOOC offered by Coursera, and at least one text published by Flat World Knowledge, which offers “static” PDFs of its e-books for free as part of its business model, will be endorsed by a chemistry MOOC being offered by edX this fall. 

The MIT Press text that benefited from a Coursera plug was co-written by Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera. Similarly, the Elsevier textbook that will be featured this fall in Circuits & Electronics was co-written by Anant Agarwal, the president of edX.

MOOCs present an opportunity to publishers due to their impressive scale -- tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of students typically register for a course, even if a small fraction of those actually persist -- and their focus on nontraditional students. The marketing principle behind putting “free samples” of a product in a high-traffic area is hardly new. But publishers have taken an especially keen interest in how the unwieldy Web, and its “culture of free,” might be harnessed to bolster traditional sales.

Some university press officials have even suggested that digital piracy, for all its hazards, might actually benefit sales by increasing exposure for certain titles.

Elsevier is nevertheless proceeding with caution in its partnership with edX. Despite the apparent success of last spring’s pilot, the publisher is not offering any additional titles free during this second, more intentionally publicized trial. But it is optimistic that “when you have content available widely, it tends to pique interest and consumers will go test the product, test the content and then purchase it,” according to O’Connell.

The publicist said Elsevier is already preparing to expand its foray into MOOC marketing. “We’ve been talking to edX about other properties … other titles and other authors,” he said.

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