I remember a conversation with an educational publishing executive I had ten years ago, when I first started Akademos. At the time, I was enamored with the idea that emerging technologies allow for new ways to customize course materials. Print on demand capabilities, for instance, even back then were at a point where one could imagine each instructor becoming the editor of his or her own anthology—not simply a classroom reader but an actual paper-bound or even hard cover collection. A lot of my enthusiasm stemmed from my experience at Cornell. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the Cornell bookstore was a pioneer in creating custom course materials (whereas I thought it was available most places). Teaching there both as a grad student and then briefly as a professor, I made good use of the service. So when I approached the publishing executive, I had a lot of excitement about what the latest technology could do in this area.
This executive, though, quickly brought some sobriety to my enthusiasm. “Custom materials,” he said, “make up perhaps 3% of class room materials. And you’d like to grow that to, say, 5% or 6%? It’s a boutique business.” The vast majority of course materials, he argued, will remain traditional textbooks for organizational rather than technical reasons: most faculty simply want the materials pre-packaged.