Reading & Literacy

Digital Book-Sharing Unlocks Print for Students

By Nirvi Shah — November 01, 2011 8 min read
Maurice Van Lowe, a 4th grader at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., reads in his classroom using Bookshare, a nonprofit electronic service that converts books into more accessible formats for students with certain kinds of disabilities.
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When 4th grade teacher Heather Whitby sat down for a book discussion last week with a group of students at her Bethesda, Md., elementary school, other students read on their own, including two who a year ago might not have been able to do so.

Because of their disabilities, Kyle Nordheimer and Maurice Van Lowe struggle with traditional printed text. But, using Bookshare, a nonprofit that provides free electronic copies of books to students with certain disabilities, both boys watched computer screens scroll through the text of The Chocolate Touch, listening to it at the same time.

Inspired by Napster, the music-sharing service, Bookshare turns books into a format that can be read aloud by computers, magnified, and spaced differently so that students with vision problems or learning disabilities can read them. They’re even available at the same time new releases reach bookstore shelves, unlike typical audiobooks.

Its services are an example of how e-book technology, taking off with consumers, has powerful potential for students who previously relied on more cumbersome and more difficult-to-obtain alternatives to the traditional book.

For schoolchildren, Bookshare is free, underwritten by a $32 million infusion from the U.S. Department of Education four years ago that’s led to 150,000 student Bookshare memberships across the nation.

And the department’s office of special education programs gave the Palo Alto-based organization another $3 million in mid-October to take its work even further during the next year. With this one-year Leveraging Impact Through Technology grant project—shortened, aptly, to LIT—Bookshare will create free e-book readers for Android phones, a free Web-based e-book reader, a virtual bookshelf that student members can use from anywhere, and access to Bookshare materials in mp3 and other audio formats.

A Further Look at Bookshare

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Reporter Nirvi Shah visits an elementary school in Bethesda, Md., and explains how Bookshare works.

“We know we need people to be able to read the books in more ways,” said Betsy Beaumon, the vice president of literacy and general manager of the 10-year-old Bookshare. “We’re all about, ‘How do we use technology to make doing this cheaper and faster?’ When you think about education, that’s critical. When a student needs a book, they need a book.”

After the 3,500-student Brewster Central district in New York started using Bookshare about 3½ years ago, “the difference to teachers, anecdotally, was amazing,” said Donna Schneider, the assistive-technology specialist. Students who once found reading to be a chore, she said, “started saying, ‘I want to read this other book on my own.’ They want to read.”

Alternatives to Print

Typically, students who can’t read traditional books begin falling behind on the first day of school.

Unable to learn at all from the ubiquitous printed materials at school, or hampered because they learn more slowly than their peers, such students often have had to wait months until audiobooks became available, or depend on a school employee to deconstruct a particular text, scan it, and convert it into a digital file to be read aloud by the right software. An alternative is for students to use special, sometimes unwieldy, equipment they lug from class to class that magnifies the words in class worksheets and books or work with an aide.

Instead of text being a source of information or inspiration, it’s too often been the cause of frustration.

“They fell behind and became frustrated through no fault of their own,” Kerri Larkin, the director of academic programs in the office of special education for the District of Columbia school system, said of those students.

Near the end of last school year, the 45,000-student district decided to arrange for a Bookshare membership for students with print disabilities—a range of conditions that hinder the ability to read words in a book or on paper. As eligible students’ education plans are updated, Bookshare memberships will be added to them, Ms. Larkin said.

Before Bookshare, Carlos Zacarias walked around school with a device that resembles an overhead projector. Mr. Zacarias, a junior at the district’s Woodrow Wilson High School who has low vision, would place reading material at the bottom and it would be magnified on an attached screen.

Maurice Van Lowe, a 4th grader at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., uses Bookshare to read The Chocolate Touch. The nonprofit Bookshare provides free electronic copies of books to schoolchildren with specific “print disabilities.” The service turns books into a format that can be read aloud by computers, magnified, and spaced differently so students like Maurice can read them more easily.

“It really got on my nerves. I had to move from class to class” with the device, he said. Now, he sports a laptop he can use to log in to Bookshare from any class, a change that doesn’t advertise his disability the way the bulky equipment did.

How It Works

Produced by nonprofit groups, commercial publishers, and the Library of Congress, audiobooks take longer to reach schools because they typically involve someone going into a studio and reading a book aloud.

Bookshare’s process is much faster, Ms. Beaumon said. The organization has agreements with about 160 publishers, which send the nonprofit an electronic version of a book as soon as it is published.

“We get an electronic feed from our publishers the same time [a book] is hitting Amazon, the same time it’s hitting iTunes,” Ms. Beaumon said. Instead of using human voices, Bookshare book voices are computer-generated, with a robotic sound somewhere between KITT from the “Knight Rider” television series and R2D2 from “Star Wars.”

When Mr. Zacarias needs to rest his eyes, he can listen to books on his laptop computer, said Roxanne Richardson, one of the district’s vision teachers.

Bookshare memberships are for students who are blind, have low vision, have such learning disabilities as severe dyslexia, or have a disability such as cerebral palsy that could keep them from holding a book. Such students have what are collectively called print disabilities—a distinct departure from saying “learning disabilities,” said David Rose, the chief education officer at the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, in Wakefield, Mass.

Using the phrase “print disability” said Mr. Rose, “is co-locating the problem. Print is part of the problem.” His nonprofit organization works on expanding learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through a set of principles called “universal design for learning.”

“We can convey that information in a whole host of ways now. In that world, you go, ‘Print is not very good for a lot of kids,’ ” he said.

As evidence of the growing need for text that reads itself, Ms. Beaumon notes that many tablet computers, including the iPad, are built with the ability to read text aloud.

Aside from publishers, Bookshare also gets electronic copies of books from the National Instructional Materials Access Center, a federal repository of textbooks in Frankfort, Ky., that was created under federal special education law.

In most cases, states and school districts adopting new textbooks must require publishers to create and submit electronic copies of the books they are buying to the database in a specific format.

Restricted Uses

Whether from publishers or the federal textbook repository, those electronic copies of books can’t be used by individuals. They must first be converted into a usable format by Bookshare and others. Bookshare has amassed more than 125,000 titles for students to download, and the nonprofit takes requests when its library doesn’t hold something a student needs.

Books and other copyright material provided through Bookshare and other organizations using an amendment to the copyright law must be guarded closely. Only students with proof of a qualifying disability can use the free Bookshare books, Ms. Beaumon said. The organization also has a fee-based service for adults.

Every book downloaded has its own digital fingerprint to ensure it is used for just one student. Even if a teacher has a half-dozen students in a class who qualify, each of their books must be acquired separately for each student.

John King, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., who has a learning disability, said on his own it may take him four minutes to read a single page of a book, making homework time-consuming. Before he learned about Bookshare in 8th grade, any assignments that involved a lot of reading crowded out the others, and sometimes went undone.

“I’m definitely enjoying the reading a lot more,” said Mr. King. “It was just such an improvement from taking hours to taking an hour or less.”

Before joining Bookshare, the Montgomery County, Md., school district where he is enrolled created its own version of electronic books, said Linda Wilson, who oversees technology for high-incidence disabilities in the nearly 147,000-student district. For some titles, the district still does.

Using Bookshare is much faster, Ms. Wilson said, although the district has had to devote many hours of training to explain what it is and how to use it. Teachers have to be educated on the technical side of using Bookshare as well as the copyright laws involved.

Part of the latest federal grant for Bookshare will be devoted to a partnership with the American Institutes of Research, a Washington-based research group, to provide free professional development to increase the use of Bookshare.

Barriers Remain

Barriers with printed materials remain, even when they are converted into Bookshare and other formats. For example, many textbooks are filled with photographs, diagrams, charts, and drawings that may be accompanied by a single line or two of text. While electronic books will read aloud that simple description, more elaborate explanations aren’t available in most cases. Bookshare plans to provide more description and is working with volunteers who donate time describing images in books, Ms. Beaumon said.

Mr. Rose, of CAST, said such difficulties with current forms of e-books underscore the need to keep advancing new media.

You don’t notice print as a disabling material until we have alternatives, he said. “We need the best medium possible to teach you—that’s what we ask.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as High-Tech Service Unlocks Books for Pupils

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