The sheer numbers are impressive: 1.2 million booklets with an average of 80 pages leave ILS, Germany’s largest distance learning institution, annually. The booklets are the textbooks for about 80,000 students enrolled in 200 accredited courses ranging from accounting to web design. For Ingo Karsten, CEO of ILS, the decision to take the printing operations in-house was driven by a compelling reason: “We wanted our materials to be as current as possible and pass any update on to the students as fast as possible”, he says. He found the ideal solution in print-on-demand.

ILS installed Xerox digital printing presses to be able to print fast and flexibly. Whenever a student signs up for a course, the learning materials are printed, incorporating the most recent updates, changes, and additions. “Being up-to-date is an important success factor”,  says Karsten.  Not having to store inventory or dispose of unused textbooks at the end of the semester are added benefits. “With print-on-demand, we also use less paper, which is good for the environment”, he says.

ILS-building

In a world where online learning has been touted as the de facto status quo in education, it is tempting to ask whether printed materials are not a bit old-fashioned. Karsten answers this question with a resounding “no”. “Before we decided to print on demand, we looked into the question of whether it would be enough to provide the contents of the booklets as downloads”, says Karsten. “But our surveys showed that especially young people who we thought would prefer digital texts wanted printed materials”. This trend is somewhat surprising but seems to occur worldwide. A few days ago, the finding that U.S. college students are not ready to give up their textbooks made the news.

While most of the communication in the distance learning courses takes place online, the actual reading and learning happens with the help of print, even though the materials are also available as PDFs. “For most students, printed materials are the most suitable way to understand complex subject matters”, Karsten says. “Our experience shows that students only rely on digital study materials when they travel.”

For him, print will stay a part of the product mix. “Even though it is more expensive, we view it as an important part of our service”. He says that people tend to print out documents that they want to understand thoroughly such as contracts. Note taking and highlighting is also much easier on printed documents. “We could have all the materials available in digital form and expect our students to print them out themselves”, he says. “But this not in line with our understanding of service.”