Colleges and universities must provide equal access to their programs, services, and activities. Ensuring equally effective oral and written communications has been identified as an essential component of this responsibility by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Region IX (OCR). OCR has further articulated that for the condition of effective communication to be met, accuracy of translation and timeliness of delivery are required. Applying this standard to providing electronic text for students with disabilities in postsecondary education currently presents a formidable challenge.
The provision of textbooks in alternate formats has always been particularly difficult at the level of postsecondary education. Though federal legislation was passed in 1879 which provided funding for the production of Braille, raised letter and large print textbooks for children up to the senior year of high school, to this date there is no corresponding mandate to provide college level texts. In 1931, when Congress first authorized the Talking Book program through the National Library Service, there was no statutory mandate to produce educational textbooks of any type through this service. It was not until 1948, when the private non-profit organization Recording for the Blind was founded, that college textbooks in alternate formats could be widely obtained from off-campus sources.
With the advent of micro-computer technology, new options for providing accessible textbooks became available to college service providers. In 1988, George Kerscher, an early proponent of electronic textbook technology, founded Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB) at the University of Montana.
When CBFB joined forces with Recording for the Blind (now known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, or RFB&D) in 1991, George Kerscher was able to greatly expand his original operations into RFB's newly formed e-text program. Over the past ten years, however, RFB&D's e-text program was refocused to fill the important need of creating college level reference books and computer manuals but did not produce a significant number of ordinary textbooks in e-text format. This need was typically filled by the creation of accessible textbooks in analog tape format.
California State University, Fullerton has seen an increase from five textbooks requested in electronic text in the fall of 2000 to nearly 50 requested in the fall of 2001, with continual growth anticipated. Such situations create difficulty when accuracy of translation and timeliness of delivery are to be maintained throughout the electronic text rendering process. What students receive as alternatively formatted instructional material must be accurate, usable, and on time for them to have an equal opportunity to achieve and for the institution to meet the OCR standard.
Currently colleges and universities providing electronic text of print materials as an accommodation have to create the electronic text files by one of three methods. They can type the material into a computer word processor, scan it into a computer and edit the file, or try to obtain an electronic file from the source. While each of these methods present different challenges, they all have one thing in common, they are labor intensive.
Typing an entire textbook from cover to cover takes a lot of time but can provide a very accurate and effectively structured document. Most colleges and universities do not have sufficient resources to regularly type entire textbooks so they have turned to optical scanning. Scanning has gained popularity for its ability to save time and money in the electronic text rendering process. However, nearly all scanned documents require editing for accuracy and structure. This is handwork that must be performed by trained staff with a sufficient skill level to not only edit content for accuracy, but to make judgments regarding format structure. For those familiar with this process, it should suffice to say, it is difficult to find, train, and retain staff who can produce high quality electronic text files on a short timeline.
Until recently, California's public postsecondary institutions had to rely on either the typing or scanning methods to create electronic text. On January 1, 2000, Assembly Bill 422 (AB-422) went into effect in California. This new law requires publishers of instructional materials sold to California's public postsecondary institutions to provide structured electronic files of those materials in formats compatible with adaptive technology to the institutions upon request. These electronic files are to be provided for the purpose of producing materials in alternative formats or accommodating a student with a disability. Even though the law has been in effect for over two years, the challenges of accuracy of translation and timeliness of delivery remain.
While delivery of electronic files of textbooks from publishers has improved since the law went into effect, files still take several weeks to obtain through an inconsistent and confusing process and generally arrive without useful structure. Although the law specifies the publishers are to provide structured electronic files compatible with adaptive technologies, the structural elements of the files being provided are often missing or inappropriate for the intended use. Because of this, local institutional resources must be deployed to complete the job of providing accurately structured and useful electronic text files to the students. Once an institution has completed the laborious process of structuring the publishers' files by inserting or defining headings, paragraphs, page numbers, captions, figures, etc., having a method of making these electronic files available to other qualified individuals or institutions would be of tremendous benefit.
For colleges and universities that spend significant staff time preparing books in alternative formats for their students, the opportunity to find a book that either has already been scanned, or has been scanned and carefully proofread, would save a tremendous amount of effort. Ensuring that this work won't need to be duplicated by another person or another institution is exactly why Bookshare.org was created.
Here's how it works: Individuals submit scanned books over the Internet to Bookshare.org. These books then go through a few automated steps for basic quality improvement and a few manual verification steps. Then they are made available for download by members in two specialized formats for the disabled - BRF (digital Braille), and DAISY, the digital talking book standard.
Colleges and universities are different from the individual user in several ways. First, the types of books are different - primarily textbooks. This means that the college and university members of Bookshare.org make up their own community within the Bookshare.org community. The average individual member wouldn't likely be interested in a sociology textbook, but other post-secondary professionals will be. Without submissions of textbooks, there can be no downloads, so it is up to the colleges and universities to submit them.
Second, the importance of the quality level is increased because of the need for accuracy for learning purposes and equal access laws. Although some of the books on Bookshare.org will have been carefully proofread, initially at least, the majority will be raw OCR scans. This can change over time because volunteers have the opportunity to proofread and improve any or all of the books.
Third, many post-secondary schools operate under specific legal considerations that may interact with Bookshare.org. For example, California's law (AB-422), requires publishers to provide an electronic format of a book upon request by a public postsecondary institution in California. However, due to the details of this law, electronic copies of books initially obtained from the publisher under AB-422 cannot be shared through Bookshare.org. Individual schools must look at what laws interact in their states.
As we move forward, we can work together to prove to publishers that this community is not a source of "leaked" ebooks to the general public, and that their worries of lost revenue caused by providing accessible copies of their books will not be realized. The ultimate goal is for every book that is or has already been published, to be available in an accessible format.
Such a resource will enable all postsecondary institutions within the United States to take advantage of the electronic textbooks other colleges and universities have already created. This will allow existing resources to be directed toward creating more electronic textbooks to in turn be shared with others. Presently, titles will be limited to those produced from print originals and exclude electronic books created from publisher supplied electronic files.
To maximize the benefit of California's law requiring publishers to provide electronic files of instructional materials used in California's public colleges and universities, agreements must be sought to allow files initially obtained from publishers and edited and structured by individual institutions to be made available to other postsecondary institutions through a resource like Bookshare.org. This has the potential of saving a tremendous amount of redundant activity.
Since most colleges and universities have limited resources to devote to creating accurately translated and effectively structured electronic textbooks, finding a method of sharing completed works for on-campus and off-campus learning must become a priority. The Bookshare.org project may provide a method to address this priority effectively.
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