A number of new developments and new technologies suggest that custom textbook publishing is on the cusp of a boom not seen since the early 1990s. While the overall market for higher education textbooks has been sluggish, sales of customized texts have been growing at double-digit rates for several years. Outsell Inc., a leading research and advisory company that closely tracks custom textbook publishing, believes the global custom textbook publishing segment will “continue to grow at a [compound annual growth rate] of 14.7% through 2015.” In addition, a relatively new technology called adaptive learning could significantly drive the sale of new individualized printed textbooks in the future.

Over the past 30 years, virtually every major publisher has either built or licensed a Web-accessible, page-based custom textbook publishing system, and most of these solutions are for the higher education (HE) market. These systems make it possible for college professors to (legally) mix chapters of copyrighted material online. The content is then electronically stitched together, the customized textbooks can be downloaded as e-books or digitally printed, and then shipped directly to college bookstores, eliminating the need for warehousing in most cases. Another emerging type of custom textbook publishing system involves ingesting and storing the complete works and disassembled pieces of a book (tagged with XML markup and meta data) in a centralized content repository, which editors can search and update. They can then select and organize content for delivery as customized textbooks, or fast-track the creation of new products, which can be delivered in any form the customer requires. Potential applications include both HE and K-12.

Today, the vast majority of customized HE textbooks are printed on high-speed 100%-variable ink-jet printing presses. When it comes to HE custom textbook printing and publishing, Steve Franzino, v-p of Courier, believes that “everything we do is about streamlining the preparation and delivery of custom content through a process that’s fast, easy to use, cost-effective, and totally reliable.” Earlier this year, Courier made a strategic investment in a Brazilian book manufacturer and licensed its proprietary custom textbook platform to Santillana, the largest Spanish/Portuguese educational publisher in the world.

Imagine a custom publishing system that harnesses the exponential growth of computer processing power, the Internet, cloud storage, fiber optic networks, etc. Now, visualize an intelligent custom publishing platform capable of ingesting, organizing, and storing waves of content, streaming data, social media, and other types of information from virtually any source.Such a system would utilize humanlike cognitive abilities to mark up that content with rules, logic, and metadata relating to permissions, royalties, security requirements, etc., and to validate everything in real time. Next, picture being able to build and run automated queries that filter and collect relevant content from the massive amounts of data available on virtually any subject. The pieces of technology required to build such a system exist today in real-time variable document composition systems such as HP Exstream.

Many believe the next big thing in custom textbook publishing for both HE and K-12 may be intelligent adaptive learning systems and software. Adaptive learning systems provide multiple pedagogical approaches and personalized trajectories for practice, instruction, and learning. Essentially, the technology uses powerful embedded algorithms and software to measure a student’s cognitive abilities, proficiency, learning speed, and retention level in order to create an individualized instructional path. These systems also provide teachers with important information about individual students, so the teachers can more effectively manage their one-on-one time with them.

There is evidence that publishers are racing to commercialize this exciting new technology. A number of publishers have already acquired, licensed, or formed partnerships with leading adaptive learning companies, and early products are receiving praise in the marketplace. A number of industry watchers believe that potentially breakthrough applications will begin to appear in HE and K-12 classrooms in just a few years.

This raises important questions about how, when, and where print will be used in conjunction with adaptive learning systems and individualized learning. It’s simply too early to tell, truth be told, but, logically, digital print—specifically, high-speed, 100%-variable color ink-jet printing—is likely to play a key role. It’s important for learning systems architects and pedagogy experts who are producing adaptive learning to understand that individualized printed books, portions of books, lessons, and other materials can be printed and delivered anywhere in days. The inclusion of printed materials as a part of adaptive learning solutions will help harness the power of print, and a number of studies indicate that print books increase retention, engagement, and overall student achievement.

This educational series is brought to you by Hewlett-Packard.