Monday, October 03, 2011

Capacity Focus, 14: Print on Demand, Risograph and other related short-run print technologies for education and training

One of the challenges for a regional education effort is the need to cover short-run printing needs cost effectively. And, nowadays, that includes not just course readers, manuals, exam papers etc, but also reproduction of CDs or DVDs and their labels.

Risograph CZ-180 Tabletop, c.
US$ 1500 - 2000
A first step to that is the Risograph style digital duplicator, in the range of 300 - 600 dots per inch [DPI] resolution. These updates to the traditional mimeograph machine burn a negative in a gauzy stencil that comes in rolls and print from it using a type of printer's ink. They are capable of printing 60 - 150+ pages per minute, on letter or legal sized sheets [paper or thin card stock], and nowadays -- if one is willing to pay for it -- certain models can reproduce in two colours. 

This option gives the ability to use the traditional black or sepia ink, and a highlight colour such as blue, green or red. With some creativity, that can also give blended tones between the underlying colour of the paper, the highlight colour, and the black or sepia. 

This sort of option is an economical solution for print runs of 50 - 10,000, including for tutor developed course readers or course manuals based on expanded class notes with exercises, assignments, and practicals, or the like.

(Cf. comparable developments here, and a discussion on possible pitfalls here and here. The bottomline is, that such readers really need to be developed by tutors, and should not be little more than compilations of text books or published articles. Nor should such change from semester to semester, seemingly at whim. Of course, my own inclinations are that ebooks, with educational tablet PCs that give a comparable reading experience to paper, are the ultimate way to go. The first wave of such tablets should be coming out in the next year or two.)

To get an idea of what is happening internationally, we may clip The Daily Bruin's article "Questioning course readers":
Steven Hardinger, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, assigns a course reader and a lecture supplement as requirements for his Chemistry 14C course.

His course reader, called a Thinkbook, provides students with extra notes on the material that he has accumulated over the past 10 years as well as practice problems, while the lecture supplement contains printouts of lecture PowerPoint presentations.

Though Hardinger used to offer all this material online, he started using a reader after surveying one of his classes. He found the majority of students said they would be willing to pay for the convenience of having all the material bound into one book.

“I don’t think I’ve had any student in the past five years say they didn’t like it and that they’d rather have it online,” Hardinger said.

The Thinkbook and lecture supplement cost $40 and $42.75, respectively, at the UCLA textbook store. Many students opt to buy them rather than the $200 textbook because they are more useful, said Kimmie Wong, a fourth-year integrative biology and physiology student.

“I liked the Thinkbook a lot because it gave us a really good idea of the types of questions the professor would ask on exams,” Wong said. “For the most part, the textbook wasn’t that helpful, so I didn’t buy it.” . . .
Notice, the opportunity: “I don’t think I’ve had any student in the past five years say they didn’t like it and that they’d rather have it online . . .”

Q: Why is that so?

A: US$200 for a college Chemistry textbook is stiff, but unfortunately, that is where conventional textbook prices are clearly headed: US$80 - 200. Such escalation is not sustainable in a world where the Amazon Kindle Fire just launched at US$199 [NOTE: probably a loss leader to lock in readers for the Kindle market of books etc.], where the OLPC-Marvell educational tablet has a target price point US$100 or less, and where ebooks may reasonably be distributed electronically for US$5 or 10 - 20. An economy keyboard and dock are probably going to come in at maybe US$ 40 - 60 in bulk.

So, we are back to a situation where the obvious choice is ebooks and readers, where some paper based printing is going to be necessary too. Hence, the significance of the Risograph type machine for informal institutional printing, for volumes where it is not cost-effective to use an ink-jet or laser type printer. 

(As in, it's the cost of ink and that of toner that get you.)

A similar solution, for more formal publication with higher resolution and a more professional presentation, would be a Print on Demand Service; perhaps something like XLibris; note their self-publishing guide. (Cf. Xulon for Christian titles, watch the video here.) 

Such publishers specialise in short runs, in theory down to one, and print to order and ship. They fill the niche between the sort of short run duplication above, and high run printers. 

(NB: With certain POD publishers, it is possible to have your book automatically offered on Amazon. The critical problem, though, is to build readership and thus sales. Using the book in a course or seminar is a good start for such. But that book has to make the impression that it is a serious work, well worth the buying and a pleasure to read. That means that would-be authors have to learn how to write a salable book, and navigate the treacherous waters of the book marketing game. [Cf. here on and here for starters, and here for some inspiration. Bottomline: most of us can write something of book length. Writing something that is salable in enough quantity to be worth it, that is another story. That takes informed planning and disciplined effort.])

In addition, there are now POD kiosks set up to print individual copies for end users, from a PDF formatted electronic copy, especially of classic works no longer in print. 

Such units, however, are quite expensive, US$ 140,000 is a recent quote. 

(Two colour, free standing Risograph type units may go for over US$25,000. But, such may be a reasonable investment for one or two nodal colleges integrated with a regional educational network. Investing in a POD press is also probably worth considering.)

When it comes to duplicating CD's or DVDs, and printing labels for them, many good solutions are available. (Cf. here.)

Noting all caveats, it is clear that, if desired, well-written course readers with tucked in DVD's are a very feasible solution for our envisioned training needs.

In addition, as POD technology becomes more affordable and accessible, the shift in the economics of publication will allow for a focus on niche markets, and for developing focussed readers, manuals, handbooks etc, to cover training needs.

In this world of the near future, publishers will be paid for editorial and marketing services, not for speculating on how well books will do in the market, or for warehousing -- which can dominate actual production costs. 

The rise of that world also means that we will have to beware next generation vanity presses that abuse POD technology to rake in money from aspiring writers, while not helping such would be authors develop readable, attractive, salable, well marketed works. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

But plainly, a revolution in publishing is dawning, and we need to surf the wave of change. Not least, so we will not be swamped by it.

From a Caribbean regional perspective, then, all of these trends and opportunities point to the potential of a networked independent regional education system that takes advantage of these technologies to deliver strategically targetted education and training. 

Precisely what the AACCS initiative is about.
So, again: why not now, why not here, why not us? END

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