When Universities Collaborate, Students Win! EMMA Consortium Empowers Students to Read Their Way

By Brad Turner, posted on

I’m headed to George Mason University for the kick-off of an exciting new project in higher education – one that could dramatically change the learning experience of students with reading barriers. Our goal: establish an online library that allows member universities to find and use accessible materials created at other participating institutions, reducing costs and shortening the time needed to serve students.

Single student outside reading on a tablet and comparing with a notebook
A university student with a learning difference reading an accessible textbook on her tablet.

We Can Do Better

Right now, if a college student with a reading barrier needs a book for a class or a project, disability services staff must convert that title into an accessible format such as braille or audio. This can be a lengthy process, particularly given the limited resources available in DSS offices.

Waiting for the accessible course materials to become available can impact a student’s performance. Perhaps the student misses the first few weeks or so of material and is stuck playing catch up. Because she didn’t have timely access to course texts, she didn’t have the same opportunity as her peers to succeed in the class.

There are thousands of DSS offices across the United States carrying out siloed remediation projects to serve their students. By bringing these universities together, we can provide even better service for these students.

When universities share their accessible collections, librarians and disability services staff will be able to more easily find the texts that their students need, enabling faster, more comprehensive service to their qualified students. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Virginia is leading a consortium of universities (George Mason University, Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Vanderbilt University) to pilot this collaboration.

Building the Means for Collaboration

Benetech is providing the technology to power this online library called EMMA (Educational Materials Made Accessible). This platform will feature Bookshare’s fingerprinting and watermarking technology to monitor use, and it will allow universities to upload their own accessible titles into a shared library and set the distribution and access rights. The system will also feature unified search, which allows each participating institution to search and receive results from the shared collection and, if the student has a qualifying reading barrier, they will also see results from Bookshare’s growing library of nearly 700,000 titles as well as books from the collections of HathiTrust, and The Internet Archive.

Before the universities can share these materials, they need to feel confident in the digital and legal infrastructure to enable it. In January, a team of law and policy experts convened to establish the legal grounding for this project and will be issuing a white paper later this year.

Scaling Impact

Once the new system is implemented, if a student at a member university requests a book, a librarian can quickly search EMMA to see if any of the member schools, Hathi Trust, Internet Archive, or Bookshare has the title they need. If the book is already in a collection, the student will quickly have access to the materials they need. If the book is not in the collection, university staff will convert the material into an accessible format and then add it to the shared collection, meaning any other student who needs that book can now have timely access. As the number of books in the collection and the number of member institutions grow, so does efficiency and impact.

Every student deserves timely access to learning materials, and with cross-institutional collaboration we can help ensure that students with disabilities can quickly find the books they want, in the format that they need, empowering them to learn in their coursework, and achieve in school and in the world.

Learn more about how Bookshare helps college students with reading barriers

Learn more about EMMA