Tar Heel Reader enables virtual learning for students with disabilities amid COVID-19 outbreak

Tar Heel Reader home page
Tar Heel Reader home page

On March 18, Professor Gary Bishop of the Department of Computer Science logged in to check on Tar Heel Reader, an online library of beginner-level books that he has maintained since 2008. In the midst of social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and with many of the site’s users out of school, Bishop expected to see a significant decline in usage.

Instead, Bishop found that overall usage had slightly increased. With students no longer accessing the site together in classrooms, peak usage has decreased. But, Bishop says, students are spreading out their visits throughout the day, using it later into the evening and even logging in on weekends. For Bishop, this is the latest instance in more than a decade of Tar Heel Reader exceeding his most ambitious hopes for the platform.

Tar Heel Reader is an online, open-source library of free, easy-to-read, accessible books. In addition to reading, users can log in and create their own books using public domain photos from Flickr, enabling teachers and caregivers to write books on topics that their students will find interesting. The site, developed by Bishop and Professor Karen Erickson of the Center for Literary and Disability Studies in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, grew out of a need for books for beginning readers with disabilities. It quickly grew popular with unexpected demographics, including students without disabilities, adults learning second languages, and even students of Latin. The site now includes books in 27 different languages, and users come from more than 200 countries and territories. Tar Heel Reader hit 10 million books read in January 2017, less than a decade after its launch.

Tar Heel Reader audience March 2020 vs January 2020
Comparison of Tar Heel Reader site visits before (orange) and during (blue) social distancing measures

Tar Heel Reader users are able to navigate the site and read books using a wide variety of input devices, including a single switch. Users with limited internet access can collect books for offline reading. The site includes instructional resources, and users have created their own tutorials on YouTube and other sites.

Gary Bishop and Karen Erickson
Gary Bishop, left, and Karen Erickson

In a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, Tar Heel Reader exhibits a different type of virality, spreading among educators through positive reviews and conference testimonials. Erickson attributes the current surge in usage to Tar Heel Reader’s promotion by educators as a solution for students with disabilities who cannot otherwise engage in “virtual” learning. She also credits positive reviews for Tar Heel Shared Reader, a shared reading interface launched in 2019 that enables adults to help engage students more actively in reading and gain more meaning from texts.

Bishop says he has received several messages from Tar Heel Reader users citing COVID-19 distancing measures, including positive reviews for the site and requests to become book creators from countries hit hard by the pandemic. Users from the United States, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands have made up more than 80 percent of the site’s usage since March 16.

To learn more about Tar Heel Reader and start reading, visit tarheel reader.org.

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