Partnership a boon for alternative textbooks

More than 40,000 students at 400 colleges used Flat World textbooks in the fall 2009 semester.
More than 40,000 students at 400 colleges used Flat World textbooks in the fall 2009 semester.

Students who are blind, have low vision, or have a learning disability that requires computer-generated speech and highlighted text soon will have more resources after publisher Flat World Knowledge announced Dec. 14 that it will make its content available to Bookshare, the largest web-based library for people with print disabilities.

Bookshare, which has 75,000 members worldwide, will add 11 new digital textbooks to its online library, which has been bolstered in the past year by contributions from colleges and universities hoping to bring reading material to students who can’t see standard print or can’t turn a page.

The first Flat World Knowledge peer-reviewed textbooks on Bookshare will be for economics and business. The partnership is expected to produce about 50 more books–covering algebra, genetics, sociology, and a range of other subjects–that will be released over the next two years, according to an announcement from Bookshare, which launched in 2002.

Flat World Knowledge’s open content license will allow for easy access for any student in need of multi-modal reading, or reading done through spoken word, for example.

“Flat World Knowledge removes barriers to textbook access,” said Eric Frank, co-founder of New York-based Flat World Knowledge. “Our open textbook model eliminates the cost barrier by making them free online and by providing affordable choices offline. We’re proud to work with Bookshare to collectively remove another barrier by enabling full, free access for thousands of students with print disabilities.”

Officials said by 2011, the Flat World-supported Bookshare catalog will include most of the 25 college courses with the highest enrollment. Flat World Knowledge will transfer the books to Bookshare as digital files, avoiding the scanning process that moves textbooks from print to online, but proves susceptible to scanning errors that can appear in the finished product.

Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that operates Bookshare, said partnerships that strengthen web-based libraries for college students who need alternative texts can trim dropout rates borne of inconvenience and frustration.

“Without the cooperation of a publisher such as Flat World, students often wait for weeks to get textbooks in accessible formats and, in some cases, are forced to drop courses [owing] to lack of accessible books,” Fruchtermann said.

More than 40,000 students at 400 colleges used Flat World textbooks in the fall 2009 semester, according to the company. About 1,000 students on 30 campuses used Flat World material last spring.

Bookshare has steadily expanded reading material for learners with disabilities after receiving a $32.5 million, five-year grant from the Department of Education in 2007.

Despite the federal funding, college students with disabilities often continue to wait midway through a semester before they get textbooks and reading material they can read.

Scanning, adjusting, and proofreading the written works takes many colleges several weeks. By teaming up with 11 universities–including Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of California at Berkeley–more books will be scanned, placed into the Bookshare library, and be ready for distribution, the company announced in April.

Increasing accessibility to students with low vision has gained attention from higher-education officials in recent years.

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