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The $32 Million Question
by B. T. Kimbrough
How many books can you add to your online library with $32 million? Jim Fruchterman recently had to give some serious attention to this question, and his answer has created high expectations, particularly for students and their parents. Not that large-scale book distribution is anything new to the voluble and energetic inventor and CEO of Bookshare, which served about 10,000 print-disabled subscribers last year with a remarkable collection of 34,000 downloadable books in DAISY and braille formats.
Fruchterman, who developed the OpenBook "reading machine" used by many blind and visually impaired individuals, sold the product line to Freedom Scientific in 2002. He then used some of the proceeds to launch Bookshare as a vehicle through which users of scanning systems such as OpenBook could pool what they scanned and share the titles with other print-disabled subscribers who pay $50 a year for the privilege of downloading up to 100 books a month.
Over time the Bookshare staff has grown to about 25, some of whom perform scanning and editing tasks of finished book files. Until recently, much of the money to pay salaries and meet distribution costs, mainly Internet-related, has come from private sources such as EBay founders Jeffrey Skoll and Pierre Omidyar, as well as E-Trade co-founder Bernard Newcomb, who is legally blind.
As of now, the size and shape of Bookshare has taken on new dimensions with the announcement of a five-year grant worth $32 million from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs. The grant is expected to make Bookshare a major provider of electronic textbooks for print-disabled students in the United States from second grade to graduate school.
Traditionally, blind and visually impaired children who have attended local public or private schools have been forced to obtain textbooks from a rough patchwork of state agencies, where workers were frequently fighting impossible deadlines using large print copy machines and braille embossers. Over the past four years, two major developments have signaled a major shift in textbook acquisition for print-disabled students. The first was passage, in late 2003, of a federal law requiring elementary and high school textbook publishers to furnish electronic copies of new textbooks to a collection center created at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Its official name is National Instructional Materials Accessibility Center, NIMAC. The second major development was national adoption of a DAISY-like standard for those electronic files, called NIMAS, National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard. Theoretically, it is supposed to be fairly simple to convert the files supplied by the textbook publishers into braille or large print hard copy and electronic text which can be used by blind students, but workers who are expected to convert the files and make the copies need varying amounts of training in the concepts and software packages required for the tasks, and actual sources of training were not in place when the files began arriving from the publishers. Without special training, many textbook providers have continued to use traditional data-entry techniques or print-enlarging copiers to produce textbooks for blind students. As a result, many students, parents and teachers have been wondering when the wonderful new flow of textbooks they have been hearing about since December of 2003 will actually begin.
It was in this context that the Office of Special Education Programs began seeking a potential national provider with major electronic experience, which set the stage for Bookshare's dramatic announcement. During a recent telephone conversation, I asked Fruchterman whether Bookshare was the only agency to submit a proposal for the unprecedented electronic textbook project. "We assume that Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic also applied," he responded, "and we actually don't understand why we were the only awardee."
Here is a significant portion of my telephone conversation with Jim Fruchterman, with minimal, space-saving edits:
DI: "How many students do you think you can accommodate?"
JF: "We're expecting to accommodate at least 100,000 students through this, and perhaps as many as 300,000. And we're expecting our collection to grow from about 34,000 books today, to adding at least another 100,000 books over the next five years."
DI: "Are your physical and Internet facilities up to the challenge?"
JF: "The great thing about running an all-digital online service is that the physical facilities are not that difficult, and the online facilities are very inexpensive and easy to expand. We're actually expanding our physical facilities by about 20 percent. Our staff will go up a significant amount; we have about 25 people now, and we'll add at least another 15 in the next year. So that's a big growth for us. But the great thing about technology, is to go from 34,000 books to 134,000 books, those books will fit on the same server we have now. In terms of serving students and answering e-mails, that's where we're adding the staff."
DI: "You have begun to make some books available internationally. Will this project slow you down in that area?"
JF: "I think it will slow down in the short-term, and expand in the medium and long-term. We happened to launch International Bookshare on October 10 and found out that we were supposed to turn on free access to Bookshare for students on the first Monday in October. So because we've taken on these two big things, I'm treating it as the sort of pilot testing of International Bookshare. I've got people in several countries testing International Bookshare, and of course we only have between two and three thousand of our copyrighted titles available internationally right now."
DI: "With all of these new users coming onto your server, are you concerned about possibly serious amounts of unauthorized sharing?"
JF: "I think that this is always part of our job to make sure that this is run in a compliant way. But our philosophy is different from what a lot of the commercial industry does in terms of protection. The standard commercial approach is what we call strong locks, weak social pressure. They are basically telling users we don't trust you and we are going to provide this really heavy-duty lock to prevent you from doing things with this book. The actual outcome of that is that most of these books are locked away from disabled people. Bookshare's approach is what we call weak locks, strong social pressure. We give the user the flexibility to take that book and turn it into braille or large print or audio, because those are the kinds of things that people need to do. So based on that, we're really relying on our community to continue to have the social pressure that says we're being treated with trust and respect, and we're going to repay that by not abusing it and providing these books for free on the Internet. And we think so far that's worked. In our entire history, I think we've had to discontinue less than five people from having Bookshare membership for violating the terms of service."
DI: "Do you think that Bookshare can deliver textbooks quickly enough to meet the needs of students?"
JF: "Oh, absolutely! There are two elements to speed. One is how fast does it get added to the collection. The second one is how fast can I get it once I've decided I want it. We've committed during 2008 that, assuming we receive a textbook in the new NIMAS format, it will be in our collection in student-ready form, that is in both DAISY and braille, within one week. And lastly, the speed of actually getting the book you want, even if you're on a dial-up connection, you can log into our Web site, download the book you want and be reading it within two or three minutes of deciding that you want that book."
DI: "Traditionally, when a student uses a textbook, it frequently needs to be in hard copy. Will Bookshare be supplying the option of large print, braille, or perhaps electronic CDs?"
JF: "No, Bookshare is 100 percent virtual. If someone wants to have a large print version of the book, they'll have to print it out themselves, or of course in many cases the school is doing that. We have a partnership with Braille Institute of America where they will provide a braille copy of the book. But they charge for that; it's not part of the free deal. Even though it may seem like a lot of money that we're getting, it's actually quite small compared to the total amount of money that schools and the other major agencies in our field spend on this. One of the ways that we can serve all students with more books then ever before is to keep it all virtual."
Pictures and other images play a major role in many of today's textbooks, and Fruchterman indicated that reaching the level of full image processing will be one of the most expensive elements in the project. According to the plan, the first textbooks from Bookshare will have pictures and other images omitted. Before the end of 2008, plans call for the inclusion of image files along with the book. The image files will be in very low resolution to keep the download time to a minimum, and blind students will need sighted assistance to retrieve information from these image files. In the last phase of the plan, scheduled for the middle of 2009, images from selected textbooks will be described in separate text files which will be provided along with the book. To help students deal with these new levels of information, HumanWare Inc. will be hired to supply a free enhancement of its basic Victor Reader Soft DAISY Reader program, which is currently available at no charge to all Bookshare subscribers.
When the $32 million grant to Bookshare was announced in October, an upper age limit of 26 was mentioned, but this restriction has been removed. One serious restriction which remains, however, relates to who can use K-12 textbooks which publishers are obligated by the new law to send to the National Instructional Materials Access Center at the American Printing House for the Blind. Such books may only be used by students who provide the required educational documentation. Thus, many of the current Bookshare members will not have access to these NIMAC books. Fruchterman said he expected that only a small number of the new Bookshare texts would fall into this category.
When I asked Fruchterman whether he has had to put any of his current plans for Bookshare on hold to accommodate Uncle Sam and his $32 million project, he at first responded with a chuckle that he would be postponing plans for a price increase. When pressed about what nonstudent Bookshare members have to look forward to in the new scheme of things, he responded: "Because of this we're going to be able to build a much better library. Although we are going to have a significant focus on textbooks, I'd say the majority of those 100,000 new titles are not going to be textbooks. They're going to be bestsellers and literature, and so forth. Adult Bookshare users who are not students are going to have access to far more books; because of this grant they are going to get a far better version of the HumanWare Victor Reader software; and we're also going to be able to redesign Bookshare. The things that we're going to be doing to re-implement the Bookshare Web site are based on the things that our users have been asking for, for a long time: better structure of the information, less complicated interfaces, easier ability to download. These are things that I think adults and students both want. Basically, this is going to allow us to realize the dreams that our current user community and new students who will be coming to this, all have had about what book access could be REALLY like."
There is no question that Fruchterman, who has frequently delivered on optimistic-sounding forecasts, is sincere, focused and determined to deliver on this ambitious set of projections. But the real $32 million question is: Will electronic textbooks, whatever their numbers, work for students in classrooms where their colleagues have hard copies? If not, will frequently under-trained workers at schools and agencies in every state be able to successfully convert them into braille or large print when needed? If so, there should be plenty of credit bestowed on decision-makers in the U.S. Department of Education and the already distinguished Jim Fruchterman. If not, we can almost certainly expect more hefty and high-profile grant announcements in the not too distant future.
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