Box at Penn State delivers accessible e-textbooks to students with disabilities

With the binding and cover already removed from a course psychology book, Mike Farley carefully feeds each of the 240 pages through a high-resolution flatbed scanner. He converts the paper into electronic text files using specialized software and is able to view the newly scanned chapters of the book on his computer. Collecting the pages from the scanner, he shuffles them into order and compares the printed version to the digital text. After fixing some minor errors and making slight adjustments to the dimensions of the digital book, he saves the file as a PDF and uploads it onto Box at Penn State — a cloud-based file storage, sharing and collaboration service from Box.com.

Farley, a senior education major and part-time student employee in the Office for Disability Services (ODS), works in Adaptive Technology and Services (ATS) in University Libraries to help make textbooks accessible to students with disabilities the same way they’ve always been made — with a scanner and conversion software. But now the books are placed onto the cloud through Box, making them easily accessible through the web, a smartphone or other mobile device. So far, ODS has uploaded more than 100 texts since it started using the service in spring 2014.

Box at Penn State is available at no additional charge to all Penn State students, faculty and staff. In addition to enabling easier file sharing and collaboration, Box at Penn State offers 50 gigabytes (for personal accounts) and 300 gigabytes (for departmental accounts) of automatic backup and storage. Mobile apps allow Box users to access, share and edit files on the go. Users can even sync files across all of their devices with the Box sync app.

Susan Hayya, coordinator in ATS and long-time champion of services for individuals with disabilities, says students using the service seem to like the easy-to-use functionality of Box. Also, since everything that is uploaded or downloaded is encrypted, the Box service is more secure than iCloud, Dropbox or other cloud storage service providers.

Being able to easily and securely retrieve course books from Box at Penn State is a plus for students with disabilities. “I really like that I can access Box through my Penn State WebAccess account because I don’t have to remember another password,” says one student. “Box also has a nice PDF viewer that is accessible to me through my screen reader, and the textbook file can be downloaded onto my iPad so I can put it in my backpack and take it with me to class, the coffee shop or wherever there’s a Wi-Fi connection.”

That accessibility is thanks to the cloud-based system Box employs. While cloud computing sounds like it has something to do with the weather, it really refers to saving data to an off-site storage system maintained by a third party. The term dates back to the network diagrams of the 1970s and 1980s that used a cloud illustration to show how the Internet connects everything together.

However, simply put, the “cloud” is the Internet and “cloud computing” is a trendy name for having access anytime, anywhere to files, images and video data. Anyone who has used Gmail or Yahoo! mail, uploaded photos to Facebook, or taken pictures on a smartphone and uploaded the photos to Instagram, has used the cloud. Dropbox, Flickr and Google Docs are also popular cloud-based services.

“In the past, if you wanted to bring a file with you, you would have to save it to a USB flash drive, external hard drive or CD-R disc,” said Kurt Baker, information technology consultant for Information Technology Services and service manager for Box at Penn State. According to Baker, saving a file to the cloud ensures users can access it with any computer or device that has an Internet connection.

At Penn State, such cloud-based services as Box fit well with the campus mobile culture in which students, faculty and staff access their core data files from a laptop, tablet or smartphone and upload those files in a variety of formats. ODS uploads its files in formats that can work with most assistive technology devices.

Keith Jervis, director of ODS, saw Box at Penn State as an opportunity to have a better solution for sharing digital content with students and the campuses. “Prior to Box, we used Penn State Access Account Storage (PASS) space to deliver books that have been converted from print to PDF or other digital format,” said Jervis. “However, there was a nominal monthly fee for the space, accessing it was somewhat confusing and the storage was limited, with additional space costing more. So using Box was an easy, no-cost solution to meet our digital content delivery needs.”

In addition to delivering e-textbooks to students with disabilities, the Box at Penn State interface also is available in a more accessible design at a.box.com. This version of the website is easier to navigate for those with vision disabilities who rely on screen readers and for those with motor disabilities who rely on keyboard access. The accessible interface also provides larger text and selection areas.

When Penn Staters started using Box on a large scale last spring Baker knew it had many collaborative features, but he still saw it as mainly a tool to store and share files. “I never envisioned it would end up helping so many students,” says Baker.

And large scale it is. With more than 20,000 users to date, Box at Penn State is currently storing nearly 20 terabytes of data — equating to the printed collections of the Library of Congress twice over — and handling more than 2,000 daily logins from users, a hundredfold increase since its launch just last year.

With plenty of room on the cloud, Baker would like to see even more students, faculty and staff using Box at Penn State. “As users become more experienced with cloud services, and particularly the features in Box, they'll find ways that it can meet their needs,” says Baker.

To learn more about Box at Penn State, visit http://box.psu.edu.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

Contacts: 
Last Updated September 29, 2014