Baked In: How BenchPrep Is Turning e-Textbooks Into Virtual Study Groups

In the future, students will use social networks for more than planning keggers. If Groupon’s backers have anything to say about it.



About the “Baked In” series: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that social dynamics are going to work their way into every industry, and the companies of the future will be the ones that bake them in from the beginning, rather than slapping them on as an afterthought. This series takes a look at companies that are discovering new opportunities by using social components in the foundations of their businesses.

Remember studying for the GMATs? Or AP Biology? Or even English 101 your freshman year? How about poring through those old textbooks and every now and then wishing you had a buddy close by you could ask for help on the parts that befuddled you? 

BenchPrep is making that happen. The Chicago-based startup, backed by Lightbank (whose founders bankrolled Groupon), has been digitizing test prep materials for the last two years. But it’s not just making your SAT or MCAT textbooks more portable. It’s also adding social features that act as a real-time virtual study groups to get you the help you need when you need it.

Among the features: The ability to ask questions of other people studying the same textbook as you–whether they’re in the library next door or halfway around the world. You can also add notes or even append YouTube videos to various parts of the texts and share your additions with other learners.

“We take the flat content and enhance it by adding interaction and social conversations,” cofounder Ashish Rangnekar tells Fast Company.


Also in the works: leaderboards for practice tests. The materials BenchPrep provides–which they get from established content providers like McGraw Hill and Wiley–already include interactive quizes that users can take to test their knowledge. Ultimately, BenchPrep plans to make it possible to form groups–whether of your own friends, for example, or everyone at your university–so you can see how you’re doing relative to others.

“You might get a 7 out of 10 on a test. But is that good? Or is it bad?” Rangnekar says. “You don’t know unless you know how everyone else is doing.”

So far, BenchPrep has 17 courses on offer, all of them involving test preparation. Users buy the individual courses and then access them via the company’s website or through a free app they can download to their smartphones or iPad.

About 100 more courses are in the pipeline, including some for professional certification and some for high school Advanced Placement classes. About 150,000 people are using the service so far.

The company’s ambitions, however, are to ultimately provide as many as 10,000 courses.


“We want to capture the whole education lifecycle,” Rangnekar says. This means starting with high school students, and then providing them materials during college, as they prepare for graduate school, and even as they enroll in continuing education for their chosen professions.

[Image: Flickr user: J.Smith Photo]

E.B. Boyd is’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Google+. Email.

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About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan