The Association of American Publishers and the University of Georgia this week unveiled an electronic database aimed at making it easier for blind, dyslexic and otherwise impaired college students to get specialized textbooks in time for classes.
The database, called AccessText, is designed to centralize the process by which electronic versions of textbooks are requested by colleges and supplied by publishers. Experts say it will allow disabled students to get their textbooks more efficiently, help colleges save money and avoid lawsuits, and protect publishers’ copyrights.
For students whose disabilities prevent them from using traditional texts, the normally straightforward task of acquiring books for their courses can be tedious and frustrating. Federal law requires that colleges and universities provide disabled students equal access to educational materials, but this is often easier said than done. College officials have to track down and contact the publisher of every textbook that each of its disabled students buys and request an electronic copy. If such a copy exists -- the likelihood shrinks the older the book and the smaller the publisher -- college officials still have to convert the file to a format that can be read by whatever reading aid the student uses. If not, the college has to wait, sometimes weeks, to obtain permission to scan the book and create its own electronic version.
Once a college has an electronic copy, converting to a readable format can be another complex process, says Sean Keegan, associate director of assistive technology at Stanford University. Math and science texts often arrive as scanned pages, and cannot always be easily read by the character-recognition software the university uses to turn them into standard electronic files, Keegan says. “That can take a longer amount of time to process that material internally and turn it around and give that to the student efficiently,” he says.
Meanwhile, delays in the process can make it impossible for disabled students to prepare for and participate in classes. “Students need to have a book in time so they can do the assigned reading and study for tests and papers,” says Gaeir Dietrich, interim director of high-tech training for the California Community Colleges system. “So if the book doesn’t come until the term has been in session for three or four weeks, that puts that student very far behind.” Some students have sued colleges over such delays, she says.
AccessText aims to mitigate these woes by streamlining the request and delivery process, says Ed McCoyd, executive director for accessibility affairs at AAP.
“There’s a lot of transactional friction taking place currently,” says McCoyd. “What AccessText is trying to do is take some of that out of the transaction by having parties agree to streamlined rules up front.”
Having colleges submit requests using the AccessText portal should eliminate the need for the publishers to require endless paperwork with each request to protect its copyrights, McCoyd says. Under the system, the copyright protection agreements can be handled once, during registration, and the requester’s bona fides can be verified by a log-in.
Currently, colleges that get tired of waiting for publishers to process the paperwork and procure an electronic copy of a text sometimes just scan a text themselves to try to satisfy the needs of disabled students in a timely fashion, says Dietrich.
AccessText is also set up to eliminate the need for different colleges to convert the same text to a readable format once it is acquired. Currently “numerous schools could be doing the exact same thing, converting the same text,” says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the publishers' association. Under the new system, “if one school has already spent the time and the money to convert a file to a format, they could advise the AccessText network, which could then make the info available that it was still available in that format, and that school could share it with another school” -- thereby sparing those colleges the time and resources it would have used to convert the file themselves, he says.
Eight major publishing houses paid a total of just under $1 million to develop the AccessText network and maintain it through its beta phase, which will end next July. From then on, it will sustain itself by billing member colleges between $375 and $500 annually, depending on size.
Dietrich notes that community colleges might not benefit from the AccessText network as much as other institutions, since “we have a lot more vocational classes and basic-skills classes, and a lot of those books don’t come through those big publishers, they come through specialized publishers,” she says. “It doesn’t solve that part of the problem for us.”
The network includes 92 percent of all college textbook publishers and is recruiting even more, according to AAP officials.