Cornell University Employs New Digital Tech.

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Customized, on-demand publishing of course packs and other scholarly materials has been more theory than reality for most institutions. Until now, it has been difficult to achieve the quality demanded by educators, and updating custom-published texts has been difficult and time-consuming.

Such hurdles are finally being overcome, thanks to the progress of the custom publishing solution employed at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Some 21 percent of its classes are now using custom course packs instead of, or along with, traditional textbooks. Each course pack is a collection of materials assembled by the professor that might include published articles, selected chapters from several different textbooks, and essays or illustrations from various sources. Course packs range from 100 to 1,200 pages.

"The educational market continues to create and consume huge volumes of printed material. Now, however, many of these materials are being customized to a particular class or audience and are being produced on an as-needed basis," explains Richard W. McDaniel, associate vice president of campus and business services, and a leader in the field of custom course packs. Cornell has been an active participant in the technological evolution of custom publishing. It started with a system that involved copying course packs and scanning them into a huge master digital document, and more recently, the system has allowed users to link multiple articles together.

On-Demand System Provides High Throughput, Improved Quality

In April 2000, Cornell implemented a system from Danka Office Imaging that includes Danka D-Publisher software along with a Heidelberg Digimaster 9110 imaging system, a high-end, high-speed digital printer. This system has become a central element of the Cornell print shop. In August alone, Cornell produced 2.7 million impressions of customized course packs for the fall semester on the system. "This publishing system is a workhorse. It's extremely fast and extremely reliable. We can run it for 24 hours straight during peak periods," notes Thomas Romantic, director of wholesale operations and support services for Cornell Business Services. It is rated for speeds of 110 document images per minute. The 9110 system has also reduced production time by speeding the raster image processing (RIP) that takes place prior to printing. It has trimmed RIP times for printing course packs from more than 30 minutes to just two or three minutes, according to Project Manager Kim Barrett.

Romantic adds that the system produces the professional image quality that universities require. "The image quality from the print engine is excellent. Some of the course packs include photographs, and the grayscale reproduction and detail in fine lines are the best I have ever seen on a custom-publishing system. These course packs are compiled from a variety of documents, but the Digimaster system creates a final book that we are proud to make available to students and faculty."

Software Enhances Flexibility, Enables Reach to Internet

D-Publisher software replaces a previous-generation software package at Cornell. One of the core applications of D-Publisher, which is licensed from, allows professors to use the Internet to access and compile articles and other materials for their course packs. Both are new additions to the custom publishing infrastructure at Cornell. D-Publisher software will soon have the capability to access a database that includes five of the seven largest educational publishers.

With Cornell's previous system, professors would conduct their own research and physically assemble an entire course pack in hard copy, then submit it for reproduction. With D-Publisher's links to multiple educational publishers, professors will be able to search for appropriate articles on the Internet, then link those articles to their own course packs electronically. D-Publisher then tracks the royalty fees associated with using the articles and assesses the fees based on the number of copies printed.

In addition, Cornell is building its own database of articles and other materials that professors have requested. At present, that includes more than 8,000 articles cross-indexed in a database that allows the publishing operation to link them to different projects. Before D-Publisher, all articles were embedded in individual course packs, which made it difficult to update them. "In the past, we saved the whole book as a single scanned file," explains Barrett. This process could encompass hundreds of pages. "But this system stores multi-image TIFF files and allows us to work efficiently with individual pages of an article."

Each article exists independently of other articles, so that they can be linked to several course packs, or printed individually. The SQL database used by the system software is also scalable, so that the publishing database can grow from year to year without being reconfigured.

High Sell-Through, Low Waste

The custom course pack system at Cornell is managed as a print-on-demand system. The print shop starts the semester by publishing 75 percent of the anticipated number of books required for each course. Then it publishes additional copies as inventory declines. This reduces waste dramatically.

"We're getting 95 percent sell-through," notes McDaniel. "If a class enrollment is 100 students, Cornell will sell 95 course packs. That's dramatically higher than the average for the textbook industry. The capability to customize solves several challenges related to traditional textbooks: professors utilize a greater percentage of the materials they've assembled, so students' perception of value is higher, and because the packs can be reprinted locally, there's less risk of ending up with unsold copies. Despite careful planning of order quantities for traditional textbooks, both publishers and stores face significant costs in returns of unsold textbooks (25 percent overall nationwide)."

As a result, the university's retail operation is more efficient and profitable, while more students in the class actually have the text (the custom course pack). Students receive good value because they can often buy one course pack instead of several textbooks. The production cost for creating course packs using the new system runs roughly five cents per page. Intellectual property costs (licensing fees for copyrighted materials) add 9 to 10 cents per page. Customized course packs have succeeded at Cornell because the new digital publishing system raises the level of quality, and McDaniel's team makes it easy for faculty to use the system.

New Applications

Customized course packs are just one application, however. "This system also creates new opportunities for universities to launch viable programs in low-volume scholarly publishing, brittle book preservation, university press and distance education programs," says McDaniel. For example, Cornell Educational Resources Program (CERP), a not-for-profit agency of the Department of Education at Cornell, provides instructional materials related to agriculture for 10,000 K-12 teachers in the Eastern U.S. and California. Traditionally, that has required costly offset printing and a substantial warehousing operation. But with the new system, the Cornell print center can print on demand to fulfill orders for CERP, eliminating inventory costs. Eventually, Romantic hopes to arrange to print CERP documents for California classrooms at remote commercial sites near the areas where they will ultimately be used. That eliminates the need to ship boxes of finished documents cross-country.

And CERP is just the tip of the iceberg. McDaniel estimates that new applications could easily account for millions of impressions each year, while the demand for custom course packs is expected to continue to double in the near future. "Timely electronic mastering has always been the crux of the problem. Now we're finally equipped with a set of solutions - D Publisher and Netpaper for mastering, and the Digimaster system for output - that have great promise for helping us realize the vision of demand publishing for universities."

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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