Monday, February 04, 2013

Betsy Beaumon on Benetech's Literacy Program

The Year That Was and the New Year Ahead

 Guest Beneblog by Betsy Beaumon, Benetech's VP and General Manager of the Literacy Program

2012 was a year of titanic shifts in the fields of consumer technology, education, and publishing, along with the requisite challenges brought about by such rapid change. At Benetech, where innovation is the engine behind our mission, we did our best to make the most of it and help lead the charge into the future. Bookshare and our other Access to Literacy initiatives, including the DIAGRAM Center and Route 66 Literacy, all made big strides this year through the significant dedication of the community that makes it all happen.

We celebrated the tenth anniversary of Bookshare—both online and with in real life—with gatherings of users, volunteers, partners, employees, and friends throughout the year. As we get older, some of us like to increase the length and number of celebrations for our own birthdays, so why not apply this to Bookshare too? After all, in the world of eBooks, ten years is pretty old! This gave us the chance to say thank you to many people, and a number of very cool dogs, who have helped make Bookshare what it is today. Thanks again!

One of the biggest changes to Bookshare in the last ten years has been in the area of education, through funding from the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). This has led to advancements that benefit everyone. What began as a small online library, with a collection built in large part by its users, is now the primary national supplier of electronic accessible educational materials for students with print disabilities. At the close of 2012, we are five years into our work in education and are serving over 230,000 students. Bookshare has over 175,000 total titles and well over 1 million book downloads each year, mostly by our student members of all ages. Time flies when you’re having fun…and apparently so do books.

Last year, we added 39,536 books to the collection ending the year with 174,235 titles. I always advise people to check back regularly given how fast books are added. For example, if you haven’t looked since December 31, you are SO 2012. We’ve added over 1800 books since then.

How people access our books also got a whole lot more interesting in 2012. We introduced new formats and new readers to give users not only what they want, but also a choice in how and where they want it. Have an Android device? We now have a free, open source reading app for you called Go Read. And more than 20,000 of our users now use Read2Go, our reading app for iOS introduced in 2011. For those who want to use audio with other mobile devices or DAISY players, we have added DAISY audio and MP3 format download capability for all of our titles, in addition to our existing DAISY text and Braille Ready Format (BRF) options.

We are committed to regularly raising the bar on the level of accessibility we can offer. In 2012, this meant a growing push to add image descriptions, especially to math and science content. We are ramping up an amazing volunteer force of individuals, on their own and from universities, corporations, and other groups, who have created tens of thousands of descriptions, vastly exceeding our expectations. Our team also made a dramatic investment in teacher training efforts, by not only providing several webinars each month, but also delivering our hands-on professional development workshops nationwide. And we now have 500 highly qualified Mentor Teachers—very special people who assist their peers in using Bookshare and assist us in testing new products and features.

DIAGRAM
This increase in accessible images would not have been possible without great tools. Luckily, we know some people who are into that stuff. In June, we began the third year of our DIAGRAM R&D Center, whose goal is to revolutionize the accessibility of graphic material. We held a gathering of leading practitioners who are at the intersection of accessible images, assistive technology, special education, and publishing. Together, we brainstormed even more ways to create, use, and discover accessible images. And if you’re not sure what all that means, no worries—this group is determined to let you know more about it as well. Click here for more info on this work, including tool demos.

What if you’re a U.S. veteran, or you speak Arabic, or you live in Korea? Or all three? In addition to being a fascinating person, you had a lot to be happy about in 2012.

Bookshare for U.S. Veterans
Bookshare has always been a great resource for veterans with print disabilities. Things got even better in 2012 as we were able to work more closely with the Veterans Administration to get the word out and begin to offer free memberships to qualified veterans in their vocational rehabilitation programs. We have also created a special collection for returning veterans, in addition to our useful career resources collection, and of course tons of books for fun.

Bookshare International
Yup, Bookshare now has Arabic books. Not just a couple, but 100 of them. The news that this is the largest accessible Arabic book collection in the world is bittersweet. Clearly, more are needed, but it’s a solid start. We hope to work on this thorny challenge further with our partner, the Mada Center, in Qatar, and benefit others throughout the region, such as the members served by our new partner, Emirates Association for the Visually Impaired, in the United Arab Emirates. Is Spanish more your bag? We’ve increased our Spanish collection, with thousands more Spanish titles coming soon from our partner Random House Mondadori, one of the largest Spanish language publishers in the world.

Other new international partners in 2012 include the National Library of Korea, Royal New Zealand Institute for the Blind, Studiebogservice (Denmark), South African Library for the Blind, and Celia Library (Finland). These partners work with us to offer Bookshare to their constituents, helping ensure good service as well as compliance with the rules of the road. In addition, we are active members of the DAISY Consortium, where we are able to contribute back code and other technical expertise so that all may benefit.

Route 66 Literacy
Did you know that we have another fabulous online service that helps adolescent and adult beginning readers learn to read? In partnership with Dr. Karen Erickson at UNC Chapel Hill, Route 66 combines engaging content for older readers with research-driven pedagogy, allowing a teacher, parent, or friend to help the learner through reading, writing, and word study exercises. This year, we launched new content, including a unit on Romeo and Juliet, to help Route 66 users stay in sync with the Common Core standards.

Looking Ahead
In October, we began another five year project with OSEP to keep offering free Bookshare services to students. During this time, we plan to at least double the number of students served once again. But doing the same thing in 2017, or even in 2013, isn’t an option if we want to best serve our users and increase our impact in a changing world.

One of the big changes: Publishers are no longer solely focused on how to get words onto dead trees, which are inherently inaccessible. Now, as new educational materials roll out to meet the new Common Core standards in K–12, and as publishers strive to meet consumer demand for eBooks, the products are increasingly “born digital.”
 Our new work in the coming years is based on a simple premise: Everything born digital should be born accessible.

Really, there’s no longer an excuse for inaccessible materials…or unhappy trees. However, accessibility doesn’t happen automatically just because something is digital. So our focus is on the standards and tools that can help publishers create accessible materials from the very beginning. We also focus on the standards and tools that allow users to find and read materials in the manner that works best for them—whether by sight, hearing, touch, or some combination of these. Another growing trend is that everyone is a publisher. So we will go beyond the traditional providers and ensure that teachers, students, and other authors also have platforms that help them create materials that are instantly usable by everyone.

Stay tuned in 2013 for new and improved tools for creating accessible content, including extensions to our Poet image description tool, its math helper that creates MathML, and a web-based tool that creates math graphs with descriptions. You’ll hear about our work with publishers, distributors, and makers of content platforms to implement our born accessible strategy. And we will be delivering on a project with the Gates Foundation to add accessibility metadata to the Learning Resources Metadata Initiative (LRMI) via Schema.org.

If you’re a Bookshare user, stay tuned for new ways to read, new ways to find even more materials (how about over one million accessible books?), and a new audio option for Spanish titles. Our outreach and volunteer efforts will grow, with a new parent program to match our incredible Mentor Teacher program. And we continue to gain new friends, as we extend our message to over 40 countries around the world. We also reach more people through our partnership with the Lions Clubs International in their Reading Action Program. As a Route 66 Literacy user, you’ll see a great new user interface, progress tracking, and a cool new video review feature.

We are excited as we jump into a new year. It’s a pleasure to serve our current users as we strive to increase our impact through technology and the power of dedicated people.

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