Barnes & Noble Online University Blends Education With E-Commerce Inc., as part of a brand extension designed to boost Web site traffic and sales, yesterday bought an unspecified minority interest in with the intention of offering free educational courses to customers.

Starting in mid-July, the online bookseller's Barnes & Noble University will offer courses online with the help of, Austin, TX, which is dedicated to building online branded universities by blending education and commerce.

"Hopefully, it'll attract people to the site, get them to browse, and if they decide to take a course, they'll be recommended reading material which we hope they'll buy from," said Gus Carlson, vice president of corporate communications at

The retailer is one of several companies that invested $26 million in's second round of funding. Other investors include Merrill Lynch KECALP, CenterPoint Ventures, Austin Ventures, TL Ventures, Impact Ventures and Sanchez Capital Partners.

Carlson said this foray fits's focus on information, education and entertainment products. Though details are being worked out, he did not rule out special concessions on books to customers who enroll for the free courses.

Plans call for an initial 30 courses this summer, based on subjects featured on, with the intention of asking authors to double as instructors at some point. In due course, authors will be able to publish additional content electronically and for print on demand.

"This is not competing with any university; these are not accredited courses," Carlson said. "These are more lifestyle. This is more a personal interest kind of exercise."

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