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NCTI: The Power of Open

November 15 2010 | by

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Open source development is changing the face of education today for students with special needs. Just ask Jim Fruchterman, founder and CEO of Bookshare, a nonprofit that converts textbooks into digital formats for people with print disabilities, including vision loss and dyslexia.

Fruchterman talked about how open source technologies are helping programmers to enhance existing and emerging education tools to build more accessibility features into them. It allows organizations like Bookshare to adapt a printed textbook into an audio or Braille file “with the push of a button.”

Gregg Vanderheiden, director at the Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin, considers accessibility to be a right. Through his Raising the Floor initiative, Vanderheiden is pushing for access to computers and the Internet to be built-in to mainstream hardware and software so the systems will be able to adapt to users needs without extra cost to the user. He envisions, say, an Apple or Droid app marketplace specifically designed for accessibility. “Then technology could go back to helping all of us access more services and information … instead of making some of us feel stupid and left behind,” Vanderheiden says.

For a repository of open source content, check out the Connexions Project, says C. Sidney Burrus, a professor at Rice University. Connexions hosts online courses that are created by teachers and downloadable by students. The content is comprised of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, book or reports, and to which anyone may view or contribute, says C. Sidney Burrus, a senior strategist of Connexions.

Currently, Bookshare operates through a copyright exemption that requires publishers to make their digital books available to people with qualifying disabilities. But as more publishers are moving towards e-publication models, more content will become easier to convert into accessible versions — as long as it’s open. “Open source makes my job easier and allows us to make more books available for students with disabilities,” Fruchterman says.

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