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Back to school: Our top 5 digital education tools

Textbooks are making the leap from paper to the Web and mobile apps. So, with school just around the corner, let’s take a look at some of the latest tools to help you get the most out of your education.

The companies in this round-up are using modern technology to help today’s students study more efficiently, with the added bonus of lightening their backpacks and keeping their wallets a bit heavier. Below are our top five digital education tools for the back to school season.

Kno: Digital textbooks

The Kno textbook app, which is available on the iPad, Web and Facebook, has a catalog of over 100,000 books you can buy or rent, making it easy to find your syllabus’s requirements. Kno makes each textbook page look exactly the same as it would in the paper book. This makes it easy for students to find what specific section a professor is referencing. According to Kno co-founder and chief technology officer Babur Habib, Kno’s aim is to, “bring students in a comfortable fashion from their analogue, physical textbook experience to the digital world.”

With the Kno app, you can take assessment tests, keep notes and highlight important bits in a section of the app called “The Journal.” There are interactive features for the sight-learners. For example, students with certain science books can look at 3D images of molecules in motion. Habib hopes to roll this feature out across many subjects in the future. In fact, he believes one day students will have digital chemistry sets to test theories on, and do experiments. Kno textbooks are roughly 75 megabytes per book.

We looked up a sample textbook from each company to see how the prices compared. The Micro Economy Today textbook is available to rent from Kno for $60 or to buy for $79. Once you buy or rent a book, you can access that title across all of Kno’s offerings, including its iPad app, Web app and Facebook app.

[Know; Kno Inc.; iPad, Web and Facebook apps (free)]

Inkling: Interactive textbooks

Unlike Kno, digital textbook company Inkling doesn’t want the information on its iPad app to look exactly like the original.  Inkling “We don’t have pages, it’s not a book, we’re not pretending it’s a book,” said chief executive Matt MacInnis. Instead, Inkling takes textbook publishers’ content and creates an interactive experience with it. The “pages” are called cards, which house the traditional text of a book. However, Inkling wants to immerse students, so it offers 3D images, moveable images; quizzes that offer right and wrong answer notations provided  by the publisher; the ability to listen along to a symphony or speech; and a recently announced social feature.

With the new social function, you could pose a question about a specific topic next to the relevant content and have it explained by a peer or even professor. It works by uploading and sharing the notebook you create for a book, which houses highlights, images and notes you made for that title. You can access other comments and highlights made by other students and professors who are using the same book.

The Inkling app is available on the iPad and its books can be up to 2 gigabytes in size. Inkling automatically syncs your notes and highlights onto the Internet, so if you have to delete and re-download a book later, your content is saved. Individual chapters can be purchased.

The entire The Micro Economy Today textbook is available to buy at $120. You can also download individual chapters of this book for $8 each. Book rentals are not available through Inkling.

[Inkling; Standard Nine Inc.; iPad app (free)]

BenchPrepBenchPrep: Test preparation apps

Unlike the other tools in this round-up, the BenchPrep mobile application is focused less on textbooks and more on tests. The app is available on Android devices, iPhones, iPads and the Web. BenchPrep works with publishers to create prep tests, flashcards and vocabulary games. It provides progress reports and analytics as you move through course content so you can see how you’re doing. Currently, the courses available on BenchPrep are test oriented, with SAT, MCAT, LSAT, Bar and other test preparations available. In the future, BenchPrep plans to expand outside of just tests.

According to chief executive Ashish Rangenkar, BenchPrep focuses on “anywhere, anytime education” to match the lifestyle of students. Because BenchPrep is offered on multiple devices, your progress throughout a course is synced wirelessly to each device, so the spot where you left off in a prep test isn’t lost when you move from the Web to the iPad app.

LSAT Prep by Nova is available to buy for $100.  You can access a purchased book across all of BenchPrep’s app offerings, including its iPad app, iPhone app, Web app and Android app.

[BenchPrep; Watermelon Express; iPad, iPhone, Web and Android (free)]

CheggChegg: Textbooks as paper or e-books

Chegg started out as a textbook rental website in 2007 and now aims to be a full service package for students year-round. Since launching, Chegg acquired homework help websites Student of Fortune and Cramster, note taking marketplace Notehall, and CourseRank, a website to help students choose classes. Most recently, Chegg partnered with Vital Source Technologies to create e-Textbook rentals alongside the traditional paper book rentals.

The traditional rentals are simple. You search for the book on your syllabus and find used or new printed books to buy or rent. Chegg then sends you the textbooks, you (hopefully) read and study them, and then return the titles at the end of your rental period. The return date is provided at checkout.

E-books work a little differently. A book is available immediately after purchase, and rental periods vary. Unfortunately, the e-books are only accessible through a browser connected to the internet and are not available for download. E-books do, however, allow you to print, download and search content within the book.

The Micro Economy Today textbook is available to rent for $42 or to buy for $65.

[Chegg; Web based]

Amazon StudentAmazon Student: Find deals on textbooks

Inevitably, students flock to Amazon.com around back to school season. The website’s offerings and its third party marketplace generally sell books at lower prices than the campus bookstore. And at the end of the semester, Amazon will buy the books back at prices dependent on book quality. Amazon even recently introduced textbook rentals through its Kindle device.

But it was the launch of its Amazon Student free iPhone app that propelled the company to this list. The app allows students to compare textbook prices by snapping a photo the barcode of the book on their syllabus. This means if you’re concerned about the $300 pricetag in the bookstore, you can do a quick check to make sure it isn’t available on Amazon for cheaper. This can also be done for electronics, supplies and other back to school necessities as student may find on their back-to-school shopping list.

Students can also sell textbooks back through Amazon Student. The app will tell you if Amazon is accepting the book back and quote a buy-back price after the student scans their book.

The app is simple, but it opens up doors to textbook comparison-shopping, which used to be fairly monopolized by individual bookstores. It was a hassle to write down book information after a trip to the book store, look up the book price at home, and make a decision whether to return to the bookstore or not. Amazon Student offers instant gratification and speeds up the pre-semester preparations.

The Micro Economy Today textbook is available to buy for $140.68, and can be sold back for $61.78.

[Amazon Student; AMZN Mobile LLC; iPhone app (free)]


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