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Librarian’s Boon or Bust? The Distance Education Conundrum

November 18, 2015

The explosion of distance education programs popping up across the traditional and for-profit education sectors has effectively pushed the reset button on how institutions are thinking about everything from curricular design to new enrollment parameters. With enrollments dropping steadily for the past few years, and statistical analysis showing a further decline looming for the future (as evidenced by demographic population data), engaging and retaining a non-traditional student population is becoming an increasingly important focus to secure the future of many institutions. But with all of the revamped ad campaigns and millions of dollars being spent on web-based educational technologies, it seems to me that efforts to ensure the academic support structures that will ultimately drive success for these students is NOT receiving the same rejuvenated approach.

Online education is a FANTASTIC opportunity for many who had thought that college level education was beyond their grasp. The flexibility of e-Learning platforms and the increasing stability of streamed and embedded media means that instructors are able to paint new vistas for these students to explore. But how do we reconcile this flexibility against the often firm margins we as librarians are asked to work within. The simple fact is that online learners don’t keep Banker’s hours…but somehow, most of us still do. So how are we to continue to play the critical guiding role for these students…many of which are completely without the competencies and academic agilities that we have previously ascribed to traditional students? The good news is that if we are able to carve a viable and replicable niche for our services within the distance learning modules, the critical role we play as a student’s tangible and accessible go-to in an otherwise digital landscape will cement the foundations of our career path and give us even more control over how information literacy and information service offerings are woven into the fabric of education.

Here are my meager suggestions toward bridging this cognitive chasm and ensuring the boon, not the bust:

  • Orientation is your jam! – The first introduction many students have to the library is during tours or orientation. In many institutions, including those on my resume, the librarians were given a small portion of the program to talk about library services and offerings. While it is tempting (or even mandated) that this sort of presentation focus on how great and helpful the library services can be-in the abstract, my approach was to use this time with students to avoid this boiler-plate/elevator speech and instead think of the session as a chance to market the librarians, not the library. Use this introductory period, when they are still forming opinions about what is or is not valuable to them, to market yourself. Focus less on a guided tour of the library website and more on how the people—not the databases—are the real ally to a new student. 15 minutes devoted to demonstrating that you are as approachable as you are knowledgeable will pay off as the term progresses.
  • Rage against the one-off Information Literacy session – Even in traditional classroom settings, a single Info Lit session early in the term is typically little more than an extended preview of things to come—the content of which, even with the best presenter, finds only some purchase with the students. We all know that the real Information Literacy sessions are those which happen in the lab, on the fly as a paper deadline looms. Speak to your faculty and offer a multi-session approach to Information Literacy which matches pace with the demands of the course. Having your input and evidence-based guidance as a more regular facet of a course will ease the non-traditional student mind by making clear the path to assistance—often times at hours when faculty may not be available.
  • Buy Donuts for the Curricular Design Team – …or muffins…chocolates are also nice…do all that you can, through whatever channels appropriate, to garner attention to the fact that including you and your fellow librarians in course planning…even down to the way library services are positioned in the course shell…is one of the best ways to promote success for all students. You are in the trenches term after term, helping students work through assignments which have become familiar by rote, and as such are uniquely positioned to comment on how the presentation of resources can positively influence their outcomes.
  • Librarian 2.0 – As our institutions and the students they serve are increasingly embracing the social and interactive Web 2.0 approach to education, we must keep pace. Non-traditional students come with non-traditional hours, and as such, so must our resource base. Many states offer virtual reference services from the state library, as do many institutions, but for those of us without such an umbrella there are a host of options for assisting that Sunday evening student query. Services such as Google+ or GoTo Meeting have a very low overhead cost and provide an accessible and dynamic platform from which to perform reference interviews through video conferencing, offer numerous tools for group exploration and highlighting of resources, provide printable logs of chats, and allow you to record the sessions in a number of formats—enabling you to start your own dynamic knowledge base which can be embedded into any given course shell. Further, starting your own blog/microblog or podcast can also serve to underscore your ability to match the evolving information services needs encountered by distance learners in a way that a Databases page off of the library website can never achieve.


As this is simply the informed opinion of one librarian, your own experience may differ—and if so I sincerely hope you will take a moment to share a note on this thread. Not only will your thoughts help paint a fuller picture, but if your experience contradicts my own I welcome the hope it will bring for all of us.


Fall issue of #PaLRaP now available online

November 16, 2015

The Fall 2015 issue of Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (PaLRaP) is now online at We invite you to review the Table of Contents below; then visit our web site to review articles and items of interest.

Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice Vol 3, No 2 (2015)

Table of Contents




  • Editors’ Note (89-91)

Anne Behler,   Tom Reinsfelder



  • In the PaLRaP Spotlight: Courtney Young (92-93)

Stephanie Campbell



  • Access to Library Resources for Clinical/Adjunct Faculty: A License-Driven Model (94-101)

David Brennan

  • Out of the Pickle: Promoting Food Science and STEM in Public Libraries (102-114)

Dawn States

  • Recycling C.R.A.P.: Reframing a Popular Research Mnemonic for Library Instruction (115-121)

Robert E. LeBlanc, Barbara Quintiliano

  • Connecting RDA and RDF: Linked Data for a Wide World of Connected Possibilities (122-135)

Ashleigh Faith, Michelle Chrzanowski

  • Searching for an Academic Librarian Job: Techniques to Maximize Success (136-143)

Angela R. Davis

  • Information Literacy in the Changing Landscape of Distance Learning: The Collaborative Design of a Flexible, Digital, Asynchronous Course (144-155)

Betsy Reichart, Christina Elvidge

  • Displaying a Poster, Unifying a Campus: Undergraduate Research Day at Penn State Wilkes-Barre (156-168)

Jennie Levine Knies, Megan MacGregor



  • Noteworthy: News Briefs from PA Libraries (169-182)

Bryan James McGeary, Stephanie Campbell

Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice

Thanks for the continuing interest in our work — Tom Reinsfelder & Anne Behler, Co-Editors


If you would like to comment on articles and/or receive individual email announcements for new issues, please register as a user at

PaLRaP is an open access, peer reviewed publication sharing information about the research and practices at or of interest to Pennsylvania’s academic libraries. PaLRap is run by a volunteer staff of CRD members, each with two year terms in various journal management positions, and it is published by the University Library System (ULS), University of Pittsburgh, through its E-Journal Publishing Program.

Published biannually: March and October

Editors: Anne Behler, Penn State University; Tom Reinsfelder, Penn State University

Peer reviewers: Members of the Pennsylvania library community


Vikings, Lions and Jeeps, 3D printing update

November 11, 2015

I have already rambled on here once about 3D printing in libraries. Since our first semester of living with 3D printing is almost over, I thought I’d report on some of our observations here at Penn State Wilkes-Barre.

We placed our Micro3D printer in a prominent location, and it immediately became the most talked-about piece of equipment in the library. It’s very cute, and blue, and little, and quiet. Since September, I would say we are averaging about 3 prints per week for students, and the rest of the time the library staff prints objects of use (pen holders are popular with us. I have yet to find a good design for keeping my cords untangled in my purse, however).  Students have requested knick-knacks such as key chains using a Jeep logo, the Nittany Lion mascot and other animals, and props for class projects, like this Viking Longboat (more on that later).

Our system is simple. Students email us a design file and specify a color. We print it. We have had successes and failures. When we fail, we will discuss with the student and either try to find an alternate design, or, if we are so inclined, see if we can identify the flaws. In truth, a lot of the designs available for download on Thingiverse are not the most stable or well thought out. But we have been impressed with our Micro3D printer, which seems to have no problem running 8-10 hours every day.

The Micro3D does have its limitations. Early on, students wanted to print cases for their phones and the bed of the Micro3D is not large enough to accommodate most modern smart phone cases. I optimistically stated back in July that I wanted to try to build my own 3D printer. Well, time ran out on that over the summer, and an Engineering instructor took pity on us and loaned us a DIY printer that they built over the summer, the SeeMeCNC Rostock Max, v. 2.Rostock Max v. 2 3D Printer

The Rostock Max is more imposing than the Micro3D, and also a great conversation starter.   It is louder, and, as a result, sits on a table in front of a large window in my office.  It definitely encourages students to peek their heads in and talk to me. One student provided me with detailed instructions to build a plexiglass shroud to surround the printer (I currently use poster board to try to block drafts from my vents and skylight, which I have found can have negative affects on my printing attempts).

This is not a plug and play machine. The instruction manual is 373 pages and includes numerous links to how-to videos.   Lucky for me, the instructions on how to use the machine do not start until page 245 (the manual is hilarious. SeeMeCNC seems to have a good sense of humor).  Our Engineering mentor encouraged me to try to download the required software (called “Matter Control”) and calibrate the machine on my own. I did not do too badly, but it is a tedious job, and requires regular monitoring. The main thing is to ensure that the extruder (i.e. the nozzle from which the plastic dispenses) is the correct height from the glass (it must be close enough that a piece of paper can move, under it, but not easily). Then it is necessary to check the height of the nozzle at three additional points on the glass. If any of those points are too high or too low, then actual screws need to be tightened or loosened with a regular Phillips-head screwdriver. Then you have to run the whole calibration test over again. It takes about 87 tries before everything is perfect, and there is a fascinating YouTube video, if you want more detail. Occasionally, the calibration just goes out of whack on its own. I blame it on the same ghosts who set off our security gates at random times when the library is empty.

Filament jammed in Rostock Max v. 2My first print, a square box, turned out well. But after that, no plastic would come out of the nozzle. Turns out, it can get jammed in there. The printer is also highly configurable. The standard plastic for 3D printers is 1.75mm in diameter. However, hard-core 3D printer users recommend measuring the plastic at five different points with calipers, and then averaging the measurement and adjusting the printing software accordingly. I am not going to do this. Ever.

I then managed to print a fancy box, designed by my colleague, to be used in a display. However, she needed four, and after the first one, we had multiple disasters that involved the design slipping on the glass and creating spaghetti-like abstract art. This was despite my liberal application of AquaNet hairspray to the glass print bed to prevent sliding. SeeMeCNC recommends a coating of Elmer’s glue, but my Engineering mentor swears by the AquaNet.

The poster-board semi-shroud around the printer seems to have solved some problems.  Just like my late-great-aunt, this printer is sensitive to drafts. Before each print, the bed has to heat to 80C, and the nozzle to 220-228C. My Engineering mentor suspected that the initial plastic jam was due to hot plastic sitting too long in the nozzle, so there are apparently settings to force the printer to heat the bed first, and then the nozzle, so that as soon as the nozzle is hot, it starts to print and doesn’t sit, waiting.  Remember the Viking Longboat mentioned above? A student needs that for a display case for a class project.  The design is too large for the Micro3D.  I successfully printed the mast, the oars, and the shields, but have not managed to print any other components yet.  After three attempts, I postponed the sail until I could receive some more expert help, as the plastic kept bubbling up on the surface of the printer bed and ultimately turning into a gooey mess.

We have only been printing with ABS plastic (we have been using PLA on the Micro3D printer). PLA is supposed to be more forgiving, but in order to use the PLA, we needed to install a fan on the printer, and that only happened last week.  I suspect that some of our problems could be solved by increasing the density or quality of our prints, and by printing with extensive support material. The Micro3D printer makes this simple – their software allows a user to check off boxes to include supports, and to specify density of the print from a pull-down menu. The Rostock’s Matter Control software is much more crazy complex.

I don’t know that I had a research question going into this project.  I know I wanted to explore whether or not new technologies like this would engage students and interest students from all disciplines.  It seems that the answer to that is yes.  I also wanted to experiment with different and more complex printers.  For my own professional development, using the more advanced Rostock printer has been eye-opening and valuable.  I’ve learned about different plastics, and also which designs tend to work with and without supports.  But I wouldn’t recommend that any library buy a DIY printer kit, build one, and attempt to incorporate it into their service model. It requires too much care, calibration, and patience.

Due to the popularity of the service, however, I will likely start to explore larger plug and play printers in order to accommodate larger designs, and try to learn more of the 3D modeling software.

ACLCP Brings the Electricity of Lightning Talks to its Fall Conference and 50th Anniversary Celebration!

November 6, 2015
Photo of numerous HACC Libraries staff members at ACLCP's Fall Conference 2015

ACLCP Fall 2015 Conference organizers decided to change things up by using a lightning talks format for its 50th Anniversary and Member Showcase, featuring Access, Collaboration, Learning, Community, and Preservation held on Friday, October 23, 2105 at the Red Lion Hotel in Harrisburg.

Following the introductory remarks by current Executive Committee Chair Robin Wagner, and announcements made by Beth Evitts, Vice-Chair/Chair Elect, the energy flowed with ten 10-minute presentations given by librarians from nine member institutions: Bucknell, Elizabethtown, Juniata, HACC, the PA College of Technology, Lebanon Valley, Gettysburg, Albright, and Dickinson. A recurring theme that “struck” me during the talks was our libraries’ embrace and use of popular culture as a way to leverage, enhance, and generate enthusiam for our services. This motif complemented the larger conference theme of “Access, Collaboration, Learning, Community, and Preservation” nicely. Here’s a quick run-down of the morning:

  • Stick it to the Wall: ACRL Framework Poster Collaboration by Nancy Frazier, Jill Hallam-Miller, and Benjamin Hoover of Bucknell University. Summarized how three Bucknell librarians with different areas of expertise worked together to develop student-centered versions of the ACRL Information Literacy Framework’s threshold concepts in question format and then created posters that could be shared with other institutions under a Creative Commons License and further customized.
  • 1, 2, 3 Count with Me: Using iPads and LibAnalytics to Collect Space Data by Sylvia Morra and Sarah Penniman from Elizabethtown College. Explained ongoing project that involves having student workers use iPads and LibAnalytics to track usage of 29 different spaces within the library with the goal of gaining insight into how to re-purpose their instruction classroom, the McCormick Research Lab.
  • Using iAuthor to Write an eBook by Corrine Syster, Jennifer Hummel, and Elise Jackson from Harrisburg Area Community College. Described an Apple grant-funded effort to develop an interactive iBook titled Libraries & Research: Getting Started (which introduces students to academic libraries and research, with an international audience in mind) and shared numerous lessons they learned during the process.
  • Batgirl Unbound, or How a College Library Started a Comic Con by Tracey Amey from the PA College of Technology. Explained the origin of the Wildcat Comic Con, a more academic, learning-focused Comic Con, which was launched in 2012 and continues to expand, and recommended how to host one at your library.
  • Geek and Greet at Bishop Library by Sara Green and Maureen Bentz of Lebanon Valley College. Reviewed their spin-off event “Geek and Greet” (based on “Geek the Library”) as a way of bringing in new library users and promoting lifelong learning. During the event, each library staff member (and even some non-library staff) got to “geek” a subject with a display, talks, special activities, etc.
  • What’s New in Preservation at Musselman Library by Carolyn Sautter and Mary Wootton of Gettysburg College. Presented on involving their Special Collections student workers in both preservation of physical materials as well as editing MARC records, for a binding description project dealing with books having specialized bindings.
  • Bigfoot in the Library: Engaging Elementary School Students in an Academic Library by Heidi Ziemer from Albright College. Described Albright Library’s adaptation of an event/activity written about by Knott & Stabo (2013) in which elementary school students were brought into a college library to investigate and evaluate information on Bigfoot and how this was an effective and appreciated community-building activity between Albright College and Reading Public Schools.
  • Marketing Solutions for E-Content shared by Samantha Bise, Jessica Howard, Samantha McCulloch, and Maureen O’Brien Dermott from Dickinson College. Detailed their plan of identifying specific e-resources to promote as well as their marketing campaign which involved branded digital signs strategically placed in the library plus other strategies for building awareness and use.
  • LGBTQ & You: Connecting Collections with the Campus Community by Mallory Jallas and Amy Ward of Gettysburg College. Described effort to build stronger relationship with the Allies Club on campus that came about as a result of ideas generated by a graduating student worker to promote and build the library’s LGBTQ collection; the project coming to fruition as a result of the engagement of multiple librarians, the Library Director, the Dean, other offices on campus, etc.

The morning went by in a “flash” and conference participants headed to lunch, where member libraries introduced their first-time ACLCP attendees and announced staff changes. Special Interest Group meetings followed, their agendas determined by their respective chairs. I attended the Reference & Instruction SIG meeting, which did not have a preset agenda, so the conversation flowed around what different campuses were doing in information literacy instruction, assessment, chat reference services, and more.

At the close of the SIG meetings, conference attendees funneled back to the main meeting room where a three-tiered, elaborately decorated 50th Anniversary Cake was being cut and distributed. It was a sweet and dramatic end to a worthwhile day of sharing and connecting. (And the hyper-pigmented, electric blue icing on some of the cake slices resulted in a few unexpectedly humorous farewells for the day.)

Live and Online: Bringing Library Instruction into Students’ Living Rooms*

November 5, 2015

At my school, we provide our students with 3 different delivery methods: traditional day classes, evening classes, and online classes.  At the library, we are lucky to have both the ability and the invitation from faculty to deliver instruction to all 3 types of classes.  When I was preparing to write this post, I remembered the recent survey regarding faculty and librarian views on their interactions with each other (  While some of our faculty, as at many institutions, might not communicate with us as well as we would prefer–when it comes to information literacy instruction, we have several with whom we’ve been able to work closely in developing both one-shot and multiple-session instruction opportunities.

I have had the enjoyable task of working with one of our online-only faculty to bring business-related research instruction to his classes.  This professor, who I’ll call Dr G., believes very strongly in the importance of the library and its resources for student success, so we have been doing hour-long (approximately) sessions that cover reminders about citation and plagiarism with more in-depth coverage of our main business database and other related sources (depending on the course focus).  What makes these sessions even more valuable is that, because we have access to teleconferencing software, we are able to offer these sessions live.  I set up and run the meeting room, which allows us to start with a PowerPoint presentation but also switch back and forth to screen-sharing so I can demonstrate databases and other online resources.  The Chat feature enables the students who attend the live session to not only respond to our questions but also use the opportunity to ask questions of their own.  Since the professor and I lead the session together, they ask questions about their course content and about using library and other information resources.

Since these are online classes, we understand that not everyone is able to attend the live session as scheduled.  The software allows us to record the meeting in all its details, so the students can see and hear everything that happened.  Dr. G. has a great way of making sure that most (if not all) of the students actually watch the session who did not attend: he asks 5 questions spaced throughout the session, providing the answers at the same time.  These are not course-related questions, though–they’re somewhat silly, personal questions about him that students are not able to guess or find by Googling.  (Example: what was his first non-elementary-school role in a theater production?)

The turnouts for these sessions are, of course, less than we would prefer, but there is no way we could schedule the sessions when all the students would be available.  We just had our 3 sessions for this quarter, and 1 session had no students attend.  Dr. G. and I still ran through the session, recording it, since all the students are required to watch it (although it went a little more quickly with no student questions).  The third session this quarter had the best turnout I remember–9 of the 25 were there from the beginning, with a 10th student logging in late.

For the students that do manage to attend, we have always had positive feedback about the relevance of the sessions.  I know there have been several students who have taken more than one class with this professor–and have still come to subsequent live sessions rather than simply watch the recording.  (Sure, they may feel obligated to attend if possible, but we like to hope they appreciate the additional time with us and the resources and the chance to ask questions.  It probably doesn’t hurt that Dr. G. started as a musical theatre major so he is rather entertaining.)

In addition to the normal “thank you” and “this was helpful/useful” comments, almost every session a student remarks that “I wish I had gotten this information earlier.”  I consider that my challenge to continue to reach out to the other faculty members who teach online classes–but who do not utilize the librarian services…yet.

*Part of the title for this post is a modification of what Dr. G. has started to say in the sessions…bringing the library into their living rooms

“Students are not to shovel sugar into their cups”

October 28, 2015

For the past several years, the Special Collections department at the McNairy Library and Learning Forum has been digitizing the faculty meeting minutes of the Pennsylvania State Normal School of the Second District (the earlist manifestation of the Millersville University of Pennsylvania).

The project encompasses the faculty minutes from 1871 to the 1950s.

Recently, the first volume was published online in the Keystone Library Network digital collection: [When you navigate to that site, please note that the collection provides a transcription for each page. To access the transcription, the user can either click on the “Text” tab or choose the “View Image & Text” button.]

Covering the years from 1871 to 1878, the minutes provide a snapshot of the concerns and issues related to an early co-educational school. Recurring topics include individualized reports on student progress, regulations, absences, health, the deportment of students, table manners, and the interaction between the sexes (which is strictly regulated).

Below you will find extracts from the minutes of 1871-78. I chose the following passages in order to illustrate not only the mores and concerns of the faculty at that time but also to illustrate the expressive language employed by the participants.

Jan. 10, 1873
Mr. Book sent out of the building for dancing in his room.

Apr. 17, 1873
See that pupils when explaining a prob. on the board assume a graceful posture and that the pointer be held in the hand next the board.

Apr. 27, 1873
Quite a lengthy discussion was entered into on the subject of pronunciation. It was agreed that the German pupils should be corrected.

Jan. 16, 1874
[Suggestion for teachers] To avoid giving too much matter outside of the text-book; the teacher should crystallize his thoughts, put them upon the board, and require their pupils to copy them.

Feb. 26, 1874
Mr. Read expelled for the reason that he accompanied Miss Mattie Barkley to Lancaster after being told not to.

November 27, 1874
It was agreed that the fol. Dining room regulations should be announced:
1. Sections. These shall consist of eight persons except at the head of the table where the no. shall be 9. Pies shall be dis. among the no. 6.
2. Carving. The meat shall be cut in thin slices and across the grain.
3. Passing Things. Each mem of a div. shall be helped to meat before anything else is passed to them. Ladies helped first. When any dish is asked for it shall be passed directly by the person most convenient to it.
4. Bread. When the crusts of bread have not been taken off before bringing it to table, the person passing it shall remove them to the side of the bread on the plate.

Feb. 26, 1875
No spitting on the floor to be allowed.

Apr. 12, 1875
No whispering by teachers or pupils from the time the first signal bell rings until all the pupils are out of the dining room.

Apr. 22, 1875
The chair suggested that the teachers assist him in creating a sentiment against defacing the prop. of the school.

June 3, 1875
[T]eachers having charge of halls should make it a point to visit all their pupils who may need their cheering presence.

June 10, 1875
The pres further remarked that he had ascertained that Misses M. Ball and Updike and Messrs Hayemen and Lark had been having secret meetings at various hours during the day and evening.
Pun[ishment]. The two gentlemen and Miss Updike expelled and Miss Ball on account of her confession recommended to leave school not to return again.

October 28, 1875
The green grocers not permitted to leave the yard after tea without permission.

Feb. 4, 1876
New Regulations. Students are not to shovel sugar into their cups nor use more than 4 teaspoonfuls. Molasses mugs to be kept in saucers when not in use.

Mar. 17, 1876
Miss Hartman stated that some days ago she found Mr. Kauffman and Miss Brice locked in Mrs. Clark’s room…The secretary read a pledge signed by Mr. Kauffman and Miss Brice which was, to effect that if they again violated any of the important regulations of the institution they would be expelled…After some remarks by several mems of the faculty Mr. Westlake moved that Mr. Kauffman and Miss Brice be expelled. The motion was seconded put and unanimously carried…
June 21, 1877
A letter from Mrs. Becca Kaffman [aka, Miss Brice, having since married Mr. Kauffman] was read by the pres. She states that she is trying for a position in the West and…she also asks the pres. to write her a recommendation in which he is not to speak of her repeated and grave violations of the regulations of the institution. The pres. said he would assist her as much as he could without making any sacrifices of principles.

Apr. 27, 1876
No jumping to be done in the front yard.

September 21, 1876
That [the teachers] should take occasion now and then to speak words of kindness and encouragement to the soldiers orphans under our charge and thus make them feel happy and contented.

December 7, 1876
The chair suggested that when the teachers are absent from their classes that they leave them in charge of some competent person…Pupils should clean the boards by moving the erasers downwards.

Jan. 4, 1877
Orphan girls are not to have any more stationary unless they pay cash for it.

Mar. 21, 1877
Students not to get up until 4 o’clock AM.
No jumping in the front yard.

Apr. 26, 1877
Mr. Behimer remarked that some of the students play croquette in Locust Groves. They must discontinue.

May 17, 1877
No carrying of water during study hours.

May 31, 1877
Some of the gentlemen at the lower tables take the ice off of the butter and put it in their water.

October 18, 187[7]
Holiday to gather chestnuts to be restricted to the senior class. Ladies not to go out after tea without special permission. Clock to be turned back ten minutes so as to be with railroad time.

Accessibility in college libraries…we can do more…it’s easy…I promise

October 26, 2015

By now we’ve all heard some notion of 508 compliance, accessibility in education or universal design as a key focus for growth or strategic planning—as the percentage of students with disabilities matriculating for college/university study is outpacing non-disabled growth since 2012. Add to that the ubiquity of technology-enabled distance education across the non-profit/for-profit spectrum and the wide advertising net cast to attract non-traditional learners, and you are faced with a sizeable and increasing population for whom accessibility will be critical to success. If you are reading this, then your chosen career path brings you to the frontline of this need and casts you in the role of guide and advocate.

To that end, and to add to the solutions spoken to by organizations such as Educause,  U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Thinkcollege, AHEAD, LearningAlly, or Closing-the-Gap (to highlight a very few), I thought I would share a few helpful resources and best practices from my own experience. While you may not be able to remodel the building to meet universal design tenants or refurbish your entire technology array, there are attainable resources for areas you can affect:

  • MS Office Accessibility Suite – Probably a familiar solution, this collection of basic Assistive Technology tools (screen-to-text narrator, monitor zoom level, speech-to-text recognition agent, and on-screen keyboard) affords you a host of tools which will cover the large portion of what your special needs students will require. The best part…you already have it installed on any non-Mac at your disposal. Check the Accessories>>Accessibility or Ease of Access Center located from any Windows system’s Start menu.
    NOTE: This is a BASIC collection of tools—much better alternatives exist in each category. For those with a budget I would recommend visiting  and to explore some of the more polished commercially available options.
  • Assistive Technology Lending Centers – Most states have a centrally located, nationally funded program where Assistive Technologies are able to be loaned for free to non-profit organizations and residents—the way you would check out a book. I know that I have gone to PATL many times in the past for my Pennsylvania area patrons. Find your local and FREE AT lending center by using RESNA’s State Program list.
  • Techmatrix.orgThis site, funded through the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), offers students and educators a chance to research and compare a growing library of available Assistive Technologies. This site allows you to evaluate and spend wisely.
  • Understood.orgA big part of your role in this situation is as an advocate. This site will help you, the student and their parent/caregiver navigate the tricky world of funding, universal design considerations, AT evaluation and more. Few sites do a better job of reducing the noise and helping you get results.

Finally, and this one gets a paragraph instead of a bullet as it is more important than any listed above, Your Institution’s Office of Special Needs. It goes without saying that the best resource you have available to you are the peers and professionals in your own organization whose education and training is centered on best-serving this growing student population. Yet I have found that there is infrequently a dialogue between those who shape these programs and those of us in information services who are readily working to make them work. In addition, half of the battle in properly serving this population stems from creating an atmosphere where special needs students feel understood and supported without being made to feel additionally “special”. This means that care should be taken when deciding where to locate specialized technologies…do we fill a  PC at the edge of the lab with all of the tools—relegating the user to separation—or are we making sure that they are having the same enabled and fulfilling experience as other students? Similarly, how we personally work with these students is critical toward supporting their sense of experimentation with the tools we present. We should be sure our confidence with the resources at hand, physical posture, language choice and overall demeanor is one not influenced by whether a student is in a chair with legs or with wheels. Your institution’s special needs office is full of professionals who can help YOU best support this student population.

The need to serve this population is growing, and with a little bit of exploration and inspiration we can make a significant difference as service providers who shape the conceptualization and delivery of these critical resources.


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