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Shmoop sends your kids to school--online

Online study guide Shmoop has improved its offering for high-school students. But it also has made it easier for those students to skip schoolwork on so many topics.

Shmoop, an online learning tool designed for high-school students, has unveiled several new categories and a whopping 115 iPhone apps.

The site now features study guides on poetry, bestselling books, civics, and biography. It already offered in-depth information on U.S. history and literature.

The timing on Shmoop's announcement is certainly appropriate. School is about to be back in session. Students will be needing Shmoop's online offerings to help them get through class.

But just how they use Shmoop's features is up for debate.

The basics
Shmoop is basically a study guide, although the site's founder Ellen Siminoff, said that it aims to become the first online textbook for high schools all over the U.S. In either case, it provides in-depth information on topics ranging from the basics like what's in the Bill of Rights to more obscure topics like the U.S. Gilded Age. The site does remind me of a textbook on topics like U.S. history, biography, and ethics.

Shmoop provides in-depth information on great novels. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

But I'm not necessarily convinced that Shmoop is as useful to educators as the company wants everyone to believe. Siminoff was quick to point out that several teachers have been using Shmoop in the classroom. But when pressed about the possibility of students using its material to help them cheat or not complete assignments, Siminoff said that her company's focus on reading battles that.

"Shmoop starts out every section with a 'Why you should care,' item," Siminoff said. "We sell reading the book."

I'm not convinced of that. Although Shmoop does provide a nice resource for kids who have already read a book for literature class, it also provides a fine resource for kids who decide they don't want to read the book and would rather use Shmoop to learn all about it.

Each book listed on Shmoop's site includes a basic summary, in-depth analysis, themes, and other information that practically every teacher is referencing when they ask students to write essays on those topics. Similar to CliffsNotes, Shmoop can be used as a free alternative to actually reading the book. It's an intrinsic issue with Shmoop that I just don't see the company fixing. It's a necessary cost of doing business for a site like this.

Information overload
Outside of that, Shmoop's content is extremely informative. In fact, the company hires Ph.D. and master's students to write the content on the site. Siminoff wouldn't say how much they pay those students, but once they write an in-depth analysis, all ownership is transferred from the graduate student to Shmoop, so it can do what it wants with the content.

Shmoop features some interesting biographies. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

As good as the content is, it's limited. You won't find math help. You won't see any science topics. So far, the company has decided to stick to novels, poetry, and general history, including biography and civics. That's a problem. Until Shmoop can offer all kinds of subjects, the chances of it gathering significant support from the educational community are limited.

I also wonder if Shmoop will eventually expand its focus. The company currently only caters to high-school students. Some of the content, Siminoff claims, can also be used in first-year undergraduate programs. I believe it. Considering the sheer breadth of the content the site offers on important topics, I could see a freshman U.S. history class analyzing some of the content the site offers. But what about younger kids? Middle-school students are just as much in need for this kind of service. Hopefully Shmoop will offer content for them, as well.

I was also surprised to learn that Shmoop, which already features study guides for the Kindle, has delivered 115 apps for the iPhone. Those apps offer the same basic function as the site--study guides for great novels. Considering Apple's troubles with developers in the past, getting 115 apps in its store is quite a feat. It underscores Shmoop's desire to bring its offering to as many places as possible.

Shmoop is on the iPhone too. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Looking ahead
Shmoop is a fine study guide for students, but it also has the potential of being an assistant for those who don't want to study. It has interesting content, but its content won't appeal to many people outside of high-school age. And its coverage is great for history and literature buffs, but math and science lovers are left out in the cold.

So it seems that Shmoop is a little perplexing. On one hand, it has the features users want. On the other hand, it's lacking many other features those same users are looking for. But since Shmoop is still in its early stages, it's hard to fault a company that has provided so much great information to students. From the common topics to the obscure, Shmoop provides every last detail. That counts for something.

If you're a parent or a teacher, Shmoop is worth checking out. Just make sure to monitor your students to ensure that they're not using it for anything other than a study guide.