Volume VII Number 1, August 2000

Using Digital Talking Books In Schools: RFB&D's Top Project

Steve Noble
Policy Analyst
Kentucky Assistive Technology Service Network


Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) is a national non-profit organization that provides educational and professional books in accessible media formats to people with print disabilities. RFB&D currently serves over 80,000 active members. RFB&D's library consists of over 80,000 titles in audio format, with an additional 1,000 titles available in E-Text format.

In an effort to make use of the growing potential to record and deliver audio books to users in computer-based environments, RFB&D began developing its Digital Audio program in 1996, which eventually led to the creation of several Digital Talking Books (DTBs) in CD-ROM format. Since DTBs can potentially be utilized over computer networks, RFB&D applied for and was subsequently awarded a grant from the United States Department of Commerce to study network delivery of DTBs.


The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was created by President Carter in 1978 as the primary federal agency responsible for telecommunications and information policy making. In the 22 years since its founding, the NTIA has been one of the leading federal agencies involved in nurturing the civilian development of the Internet and other communication networks. In 1993, Congress established the NTIA federal grant program; originally called the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), this federal funding program was renamed as the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) in early 2000. The goal of the TOP grant funding initiative is to spur innovative uses of communication networks in the service of the public interest, thus improving the public's access to education, health care, public safety, and other related services. Further information about TOP may be found on the NTIA web site.

RFB&Dís TOP grant funding commenced in October, 1998, with a total project budget of $819,723. Of this total budget, the TOP grant authorized a federal funding outlay of $348,891 with a required non-federal match of $434,832. Our matching funds are being supplied by a composite of corporate and foundation gifts. The original grant period was set for a period of two years, but a requested one year extension will give RFB&D until September 30, 2001, to complete the project.


The principal aim of RFB&D's TOP project is to experiment with using Digital Talking Books (DTBs) in an educational setting, while focusing particular attention on the ability to provide DTBs over computer networks. Generally speaking, the project is designed as a consumer trial in which information gleaned from students using DTBs in schools will be fed back to RFB&D for the purpose of increasing overall product utility, as well as amassing a wealth of useful anecdotal data concerning the practical implications of delivering accessible textbooks over computer networks.


Some of the specific concepts central to this project include:

Students will use DTB technology in a genuine learning environment. Each student will be supplied with books which he or she needs for course work and will use these books within the context of his or her normal curriculum. This is seen as a way to reinforce each student's motivation to use the new DTB technology, and should help to ensure the integrity of the students' feedback. Unlike previous DTB consumer testing, this is the first time the technology is being used in an educational setting anywhere in the world;

Participants in this study include a mix of students with various types and degrees of print disabilities. As one would expect, most student participants have some form of learning disability, while a smaller percentage of students are blind or have low vision. In some cases students have more than one disability. Most students are educated in a mainstream school environment, but some attend a specialized residential school;

Schools who have been selected to take part in this classroom-based testing project represent a cross section of educational, social and economic levels and broad geographic diversity. A total of five schools are taking part in the study: Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ); the University of Montana (Missoula, MT); the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (Austin, TX); the Henry M. Gunn High School (Palo Alto, CA); and the North Dade Middle School (Miami, FL);

A variety of DTB formats and playback technologies will be utilized. Students will be primarily using structured audio books which lack the full electronic text, but several full-text audio books are being introduced as the study progresses. Students began the study exclusively using standalone PlexTalk and Victor DTB players which allow complete access to the booksí audio content. In order to utilize the full potential of full-text audio books, however, students will increasingly use computers to play back DTBs. These computers are equipped with Lp-player software which will display the print portion of full-text audio books as a video output while at the same time playing the audio content of the book. Since the text and audio are synchronized, students will see the text highlighted on the screen as it is being read, and the text will automatically scroll down the screen as the book is being read. This playback technique may be of great benefit to some students with learning disabilities.



The first in-class testing cycle began with the fall 1999 semester. The initial recruitment goal was set at a total of 25 students, distributed at an average of five students per each of the five sites. This initial group of 25 will remain as a cohort group through the life of the study. In each subsequent test cycle, an additional group of 25 new students will be recruited, and they will rotate in and out of the study. New students will be asked to join the cohort group when any of the initial 25 leave the study. Beginning with the spring 2000 cycle, the student group thus increased to a combined total of 50 students. A continuing maximum number of 50 students per cycle (both new and continuing) will thereby be allowed to participate for the remainder of the project time span. Following this process will ensure that the project goal of including a minimum of 120 unique students over the life of the project (five test cycles) is met, while also helping maintain the ability to do longitudinal studies of changes in student behavior and attitudes over the two years of classroom testing.


Since one of the project's key concepts calls for students to use DTBs of textbooks needed in the classroom, title selection and prompt production are critical factors. With as much advance notice as possible, school contacts must obtain each participant's curriculum for a given test cycle and forward the list of books to RFB&D library and production staff. A selection process then takes place where various priorities and production concerns are weighed for each prospective title. Selection factors include such factors as size, subject matter and complexity of the written text, the number of students who could use the same title, and the circulation frequency of the title in RFB&Dís library of tapes.

Once the title selections have been made, books are slated for production as DTBs. If the decision is made to produce a particular title as a structured audio book, then existing analog open reel tape masters may be used to produce the DTB. Using an automated process developed by RFB&D, audio tracks from tape masters are converted into digital files at high speed, while beep-tone indexing information found in the audio is utilized to build the DTB's structure.

When the decision is made to produce a title as a full-text audio DTB, the book is typically built from scratch rather that using a conversion process. Once the printed text has been scanned or keyed in and the necessary tagging and hand-coding has been done, the text is then slated for recording. Most recording is currently being done with Lp-studio Pro recording software. Typically, books chosen for this type of production have been titles of limited complexity and short to moderate in length.


The project has just finished the second of five test cycles, and only a limited amount of information is available to date. However, from the data that has been gathered it is clear that students have found the utility of Digital Talking Books to be far above that of any other form of accessible texts they have used before. In particular, the ability to navigate through the structure of a book or to go directly to any page of the text with only the push of a few keys is seen as a vast improvement over existing analog audio books.

Perhaps the most challenging task RFB&D has tackled in running the project thus far has been simply getting the DTBs produced. When RFB&D was awarded the TOP grant in 1998 there were production tools available, and no automated conversion process had yet been developed. Thus RFB&D was faced with the difficult position of creating and perfecting production systems and procedures while at the same time having to devote significant resources to producing content. This situation led to some difficulties in producing a sufficient number of unique titles early enough to be introduced to all students during the fall 1999 test cycle, though by the spring 2000 cycle most of these problems had been overcome. Prospects for the future test cycles now seem to be well on track.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the testing initiative will be happening in the fall 2000 test cycle when it is expected that all school sites will be in a position to deliver Digital Talking Books over their computer networks. Each school will have DTB files stored on drives connected to their local network that will allow students to pull up books for playback at various campus locations. This may be in the classroom and/or library or resource room, and perhaps even in a student's dorm room if a secured connection is available. Such a scenario has already been successfully tested at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and represents the first time network delivery of DTBs has been accomplished.

It is hoped that the continuing success of RFB&D's testing initiative will help pave the way for the future network delivery of accessible textbooks across the country. Providing necessary copyright protection mechanisms are developed and incorporated in future Digital Talking Books, it may even be possible to incorporate some type of Internet delivery service which would allow students in virtually any location to log on and read accessible books whenever they want. However, since DTB files are very large, it may be some time before typical usersí Internet connectivity makes this dream a reality. But for the community or students and other researchers with disabilities, it is certainly nice to know that this reality is now closer than ever.

Noble, S. (2000). Using digital talking books in schools: RFB&D's top project. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 7(1).