Delivering Accessible Library Services In A Distance Learning Environment
In the typical university setting, a student is usually expected to spend two-to-three times as many hours outside the classroom doing reading, homework and library research as he or she may spend in class. This amount of outside work continues to grow in both volume and importance as a student progresses to higher level classes, finally reaching very critical proportions in graduate school. For students who participate in distance learning settings, however, the task of "going to the library" takes on new and very different dimensions.
A rapidly growing number of universities have now begun to offer distance education classes, and we now have seen a variety of delivery techniques developed to service the needs of remote students. Indeed, there are a number of institutions of higher learning now existing primarily as "virtual universities." Although some experience may be gained by examining how various organizations have tackled this problem, of particular concern for this presentation is just how the textbook and library access needs of students with disabilities can be met without the possibility of physically "going to the library" or the campus special services office for assistance.
Typically, a university will want to structure library services to deal with three major areas: reference services, document delivery and information literacy needs. In the area of reference services, libraries need to insure that online catalogs and bibliographic databases are compatible with commonly used access systems. Normally, a special reference email address is designated by which remote students may receive quick answers to specific reference questions. Email access, together with online tutorials, can also go a long way to providing a student's information literacy needs--that is, teaching students how to effectively utilize information sources.
Document delivery is usually the area most problematic when considering the needs of students with print disabilities. In a common distance learning setting, students are sold print copies of their textbooks which are then mailed to them. Other books needed for research and independent reading are typically circulated to students by direct mail as well. Journal articles and other selected readings are usually put on the instructor's web page established especially for the course. Many universities are only now considering what to do for remote students who cannot access information in printed form. Although articles are being scanned and put up on the web, institutions do not always do such a good job at making sure these web pages are accessible with assistive technology devices.
Books, however, continue to be the weakest link in providing accessible library services to remote students. Since most educational institutions are not set up to provide entire books in accessible forms, it is essential that cooperative efforts with producers of accessible texts be initiated. Although not solely for the needs of remote students, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) has begun a test project to examine the feasibility of delivering accessible textbooks via digital delivery methods.
RFB&D has just recently been presented with a Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to study the utility of various methods of delivering accessible educational information to blind, visually impaired, and learning disabled individuals. In particular, this study will explore and experiment with the delivery of RFB&D's accessible AudioPlus books, which integrate an electronic text file with digitally-mastered recorded audio. The AudioPlus testing and Feedback Project (ATF) will include the delivery of AudioPlus books in a network environment of five local and diverse education sites. The ATF project will generate valuable feedback from schools and students to determine the print-disabled community's level of accessibility, usability and connectivity to the national information infrastructure, and their associated needs.
RFB&D's TIIAP grant calls for a two-year project beginning October 1, 1998. This presentation at CSUN in March of 1999 will describe the project to date, and detail the directions the project has taken. Subsequent presentations at future CSUN conferences will further describe the results of the study. It is RFB&D's belief that this study will help position the organization to provide accessible books to both local and remote students via the Internet and other digital delivery avenues. The success of such a program will go a long way toward securing access to distance education offerings for students with disabilities.
* The author would like to thank Professor Sharon Edge at the University of Louisville for her assistance with this presentation. For additional information on providing library services in a distance education environment, please see her article: Edge, Sharon M., & Edge, Denzil, (1998). Building library support for distance education through collaboration. In P. Brophy, S. Fisher, & Z. Clark (Eds.), _Libraries without walls 2: The delivery of library services to distance users_ (pp. 14-32). London: Library Association Publishing.)