A Textbook Case


The prohibitive cost of purchasing and maintaining textbooks has left our studentswith outdated materials or none at all. The solution? Print your own.

HOW IRONIC IT IS that in the internet age, current events are a click away but often not on the desks of students in K-12 classrooms throughout the country. The culprit is outof-date or inadequate textbooks.

In a survey conducted by the National Education Association, 39 percent of teachers said they do not have enough textbooks to assign homework to their students, and 32 percent reported their oldest textbook was more than 10 years old. This, combined with a replacement schedule of five to seven years for the average textbook in public school, is a recipe for teaching a history lesson in all subjects. Imagine a student being taught seventh-grade social studies with a textbook that is 5 years old. That means no Operation Enduring Freedom, no 9/11, no Enron, and no MySpace.

The cost of a comprehensive textbook strategy represents a significant portion of a typical education budget. Costs include not only the amount invested in the actual books, but also the costs associated with storage, distribution, collection, and insurance. The South Carolina Department of Education, for example, spent $57 million of its budget on textbooks in the 2004-05 school year.

However, an even more significant cost must be considered: the incalculable price of a student’s missed educational opportunity because of a textbook shortage or the need to use outdated materials.


Content Delivery Method Technological Needs Advantages Drawbacks
Traditional textbooks Infrastructure in place for storage, distribution; inventory management process Business as usual High risk of outdated material provided to students; logistics can be expensive
E-books A computer for each student and teacher to view material; licensing fee required Makes up-to-date information available to all students; provides flexibility for teachers Requires IT infrastructure, access to computer equipment; difficult for rural or economically challenged areas
Print-on-demand Central computer for each school or teacher to use to download material, and an output device to print books; copyright permission or licensing fee required Up-to-date information for all students, flexibility for teachers; reduces storage, distribution infrastructure, and cost Must have access to high-volume, reliable printing equipment to provide output

Traditional vs. Online

The traditional textbook is still the most common way to deliver textbook content. But for the past several years, many members of the education community have discussed the possibility of making changes to their conventional textbook management strategies by moving to an online environment. While this shift can have many challenges, it also represents many more benefits, as outlined in the grid below, which compares traditional textbooks with two other content delivery methods: ebooks and print-on-demand.

Each of the three methods has its own merits and drawbacks (see “Considering Your Options” ). States and school districts must weigh all factors, including costs, against the effectiveness of the strategy and its impact on a student’s education. Of the three options, printing textbooks on demand provides significant benefits while posing fewer—and more easily overcome— challenges.

All-in-One Printers

Currently, schools use several copying, printing, and duplicating technologies to handle educational and administrative needs. They would do well to follow the example of many successful corporations throughout the United States, which use a “leverage strategy” in their operations, investing money in assets that can be used to accomplish many different objectives for the overall benefit of the company. Schools can take the same approach to their use of textbooks.

By selecting an appropriate printing device, schools can use one system to handle all their current workloads and also accommodate a move to online textbook printing. They can choose to stick with their current copier or printer technology, if it has the necessary capabilities, or work with a variety of manufacturers to acquire the latest in copying/printing technology in monochrome or full color.

If they choose to shop around, schools should get themselves well informed on what’s out there before making a purchase. A new generation of digital printers has arrived, combining ultra-high speed with low running costs and fullcolor capability. They range in price from $35,000 to $75,000. Plenty of manufacturers have offerings with both full color or black-and-white printing capabilities, with speeds ranging from 50 to 120 pages per minute.

When considering a new production-level system, two key elements will thin out the choices: ease of use and recommended monthly print volumes. Before making a purchase, it’s critical to include not only the purchasing department but to get input from the end users as well. Another factor to consider is the ability to print in full color. This is important for instructional material—if the subject is botany, then the color green is essential. Some machines offer low-cost full-color printing and deserve careful consideration. The system’s flexibility is also key, because schools have a wide variety of applications.

Saving Dollars

Given the budget crunches that many educators and administrators face, the impact on the bottom line is a factor that must be weighed against the educational goals. How does this translate into financial considerations for downloading and printing textbooks on demand? Let’s compare the costs with those of traditional methods of textbook management by looking at the state education system referenced previously: South Carolina’s.


South Carolina spends $57 million a year on textbooks. As shown below,printing them out would save the state a considerable chunk of money.

Content Delivery Method Estimated Annual Costs Cost per Student Comparison to Traditional Textbooks
Traditional textbooks
$57 million
$161.8 million
$104.8 million
cost increase
$49.6 million
$7.4 million

The estimated cost of curriculum is based on 45 percent of traditional textbook costs.
* Assumes $38 per student for curriculum and $600 for a computer (three-year life span).
** Assumes 250 printed pages for each of seven subjects, with a cost per copy of 2 cents; includes $38 per student for curriculum.

According to South Carolina Department of Education statistics, the state has approximately 680,000 students in its system and annually budgets $57 million for instructional material. This equates to approximately $84 per student per year. A cost comparison of the three content delivery methods at hand indicates that a printon- demand strategy would yield significant savings in the state (see “Weighing the Costs”).

Content Challenges

Access to content is a significant challenge that many school districts will confront in moving away from traditional textbooks. Three states carry a tremendous amount of weight in textbook trends: Florida, California, and Texas. That trio comprises a significant percentage of the total national student population and thus drives textbook strategies for many smaller states. The good news is that these three states, along with many others, are scheduled to review and adopt new curriculum by 2008. As the demand for online curriculum grows, the supply of licensed material is also likely to increase.

The shift to online curriculum is still emerging but is picking up steam (see Extracurricular). Many other vibrant modern technologies—think iPods, eBay, and Google—were once considered futuristic ideas, but are now staples of our everyday lives. In today’s environment, if it can be imagined, it can be done—or it’s been done already.

Kevin Hunter is director of the Full Color Business Unit for Riso, a provider of digital printing technology.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.