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National Federation of the Blind Takes On E-Text Pilots

First, it was course management systems and then e-reader devices. Is the shift to digital textbooks going to be just the latest area where accessibility turns out to be an afterthought?

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has accused Educause, a higher education IT association, and technology community Internet2 of ignoring the "accessibility barriers" that are preventing blind and print-disabled students from fully participating in a major e-text pilot initiative being coordinated by both. In a letter to those organizations and others involved in the Internet2 eTextbook program, NFB President Marc Maurer cited problems identified by the University of Minnesota in an earlier pilot as the reason for NFB's concerns.

In a report issued after the completion of that pilot, which involved five institutions, U Minnesota stated that it would be unable to participate in the fall program now being undertaken due to accessibility issues. The NFB said it was "shocked and dismayed" that other schools--now numbering more than two dozen--were intending to continue with the effort before the accessibility problems were addressed.

In a reply to the NFB, copies of which were provided to Campus Technology by the NFB, Educause and Internet2 stated that the pilot programs violated no laws and that the two organizations "long supported the needs of all students and faculty," calling the project an "experiment" in which "the only way to identify challenges and make progress is by assessing tools and materials that may not yet be mature."

The same letter sent to Educause and Internet2 by the NFB was also sent to Courseload, the company providing the e-text reading platform, and McGraw-Hill Education, which is providing the textbooks being used. CC'd were the presidents of all of the institutions that are signed up for the latest e-text pilot.

The project organizers also sent an e-mail to the institutions involved in the newest pilot stating that the letter "took us by surprise." The reason they were caught unaware: They've been collaborating with the NFB "to ensure that e-readers and other online tools progress toward appropriate accessibility features and mechanisms."

In its response to the NFB's charges, Internet2 and Educause said that the assertions made by National Federation "were based on reports from an earlier pilot"--the one in which U Minnesota participated. The findings from that pilot led "to improvements in subsequent versions of the reader, which may not have been understood by the NFB."

The organizers emphasized the experimental nature of the pilots to recipients of the e-mail. "Given the rapid change in how technology is deployed--students often bring it, rather than campuses providing it--it is critical to experiment with new ways to provide course materials. Inevitably some of those experiments will fall short. However, rejecting experimentation does not solve the problem," the e-mail stated.

The Seeds of Dissent
U Minnesota and other participants issued a report Aug. 1 shortly after completing the spring 2012 pilot. In the report, the university cited its office of Disability Services, which concluded that the issues were severe enough to put the institution at risk for litigation.

Bob Crabb, director of bookstores, and Brad Cohen, associate CIO for academic technology, who jointly lead a committee on e-learning and e-textbook strategies at U Minnesota, said the accessibility issues weren't the only factors in play when the institution made the decision not to participate in the fall 2012 pilot.

"Internet2 offered up that fall pilot in late March," Crabb explained. "At that time we were only charged with doing the spring pilot. When that opportunity came up for the fall, we talked about it and decided that we wanted to see the results of the spring pilot before we made any further recommitment."

The evaluation of those results included looking at the strengths and weaknesses of Courseload, the e-reader being used in the pilot. "We wanted to find out what the students thought about it," Crabb added.

In March, a separate accessibility review hadn't yet been completed. By the time the August report was issued, however, Disability Services had come down hard on the use of the platform. The program used to deliver the e-textbooks, the office reported, used a PDF format in a way that wouldn't work with most adaptive technology. For example, text-to-voice software wouldn't work adequately. To get around the limitations, according to the evaluation, students with disabilities were supplied with a free print edition of the e-textbook, which was then converted by an optical character reader and imported into other reading tools.

Added Cohen, "The initial problem was the way the content is packaged and delivered, but it really [goes] beyond that, to the affordances that are built into the package as well." These he likened to the accessibility struggles that course management systems went through "when they first emerged in a broad way."

Part of the struggle for publishers is digital rights management. "They want to keep control over access to the content," Cohen said, "but the default ways to do that create real accessibility challenges."

Begging off of the fall Internet2/Educause e-text pilot doesn't mean, however, that the university is backing away from experimenting with e-textbooks. "The Internet2 project and the technologies associated with it are just one among many alternatives," said Cohen. "We need to have a broader net and a broader engagement of the options in this space."

Participants in the spring pilot found that "the technology itself is still not up to the level that it needs to be to make e-text take off like it has in the trade book industry," Crabb noted. "We saw in the surveys that students were feeling it was pretty klunky."

As the technology matures, added Cohen, "then I think we'll see wider adoption."

Currently, a number of pilots are unfolding on U Minnesota campuses. Two of those use reading alternatives to Courseload: CourseSmart and VitalSource Bookshelf. Both companies have made a public commitment to accessibility on their Web sites.

CourseSmart offers a version of its reader that's accessible to screen reader technology, including Freedom Scientific's JAWS and Apple's VoiceOver. However, in a Web site help topic on the subject, the company added that "the quality of the experience is dependent upon the actual book content." The company stated that it's optimizing its best-sellers "to ensure accurate reading order, add image tags, as well as structural tags such as headings and lists." For titles where that optimization hasn't taken place yet, the company said it optimizes additional books "as requested by purchasers."

In a PDF document on its Web site, VitalSource said it is committed to supporting an application that is "highly functional" for "navigation, display, and other operations," and that adheres to Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 accessibility compliance.

Grant-Funded Conversion Work
Converting content to an accessible format has multiple challenges. According to CourseSmart CEO Sean Devine, getting textbook publishers to provide their content to the e-text platform vendors in a format that is much more accessible is "a work in progress."

"Very often when the publisher has laid out that book, they've laid it out in such a fashion that there's pedagogy in the layout," Devine explained. The text may refer to an image or sidebar that further explains a concept, and those components are laid out on a page "so they have a flow to them." But, he added, the assistive technology used by people with print disabilities may read the content in an order that doesn't make sense. "It might start reading the text and then jump over to a graphic and then come back and read the text again, and then jump over to a chart, and it might be reading those things in an illogical order. There's some intelligence that needs to be built into the page, so the assistive technology that is helping the disabled student read the content works in a way that the editor intended it."

In 2010 Georgia Tech's Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC) and Access Text Network began working with CourseSmart on a two-year program funded by a grant issued by the United States Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The goal of the "STudent E-rent Pilot Project," or STEPP, was to improve low-cost access to higher ed textbooks for all students, including those with print disabilities. Much of a million-dollar grant went to repurposing textbook content through automated tools and manual intervention in order to make them accessible-ready.

Now, said Devine, 80 percent of its top-selling textbooks are available in an accessible format. When a student needs one that isn't already converted, CourseSmart applies some of the grant funding to "go back in and do the work." He said it takes "under a couple of weeks" for the conversion of a title.

A Constant Battle
The NFB's Maurer said he finds the latest disagreement part of a "constant battle." "The thing is this: If you build this stuff properly, it comes out in all kinds of ways. You can hear it, you can see it, you can touch it. If you build it improperly, then it comes out only one way--then you can only see it, which means that blind and print disabled people can't use it. I want to get it built so everyone can use it."

His strategy for pushing the issue is one that's worked in the past. By communicating with university presidents, he's hoping they'll put pressure on the program organizers to add accessibility into the set of requirements for any platform chosen to deliver the e-textbooks. For example, that's how Apple was persuaded to make accessibility a part of its devices; when iTunes U came out, according to Maurer, the NFB contacted 285 university presidents "and told them they were violating the law. They started writing to Apple, saying, 'What are you doing?'"

"Every time we think we might have this under control, somebody comes up with some other inaccessible thing, and we write off and say, 'Don't you do it,' and they do it anyway.... They all tell us, 'We're with you in spirit.' But they never get there in fact."

As for the latest "battle," Maurer said that what would satisfy him is to know what the accessibility plan will be for the pilot project going forward. "And there has to be one. There has to be a deadline by which time they expect the system to be accessible to blind professors and students. I have to know what that deadline is, and it has to be a reasonable one. It can't be 25 years from now. A couple of years would suit me. I'd be glad to have it sooner than that."

Also, he added, "I have to be able to get my hands on the product itself to test it, so we can provide information about what's wrong with it and why we think so."

How the NFB Does Its Product Testing
Anne Taylor, director of access technology at the NFB, has as part of her responsibility managing perhaps the largest consumer evaluation center for non-visual access technology. She's also a member of Courseload's accessibility advisory board, which met earlier this month just after the exchange of correspondence between the NFB and the other organizations.

Saying that the "spirit of collaboration is there," Taylor added that she has never actually had the experience of seeing Courseload applications run extensively.

When a vendor requests that the NFB evaluate a product, she explained, her testing team may ask for an introductory call with a program or product designer "to make sure we understand what we're getting into." The company also needs to identify how their product is being used so that Taylor's group can evaluate the high priority tasks using non-visual access. "We want to make sure the most commonly used tasks will be accessible to all. Then we can branch out into more nuances, maybe minor product features that require further testing."

Sometimes that process is free, and sometimes the NFB charges for its testing services.

Although Taylor acknowledged that she has "no doubt that Courseload intends to do something about this," she pointed out that while its "intention is welcome now, it should have been happening earlier in the pilot program."

"You've got to realize one thing," she noted. "Accessibility standards on the Internet have been available for a little over a decade. If [Courseload] were proactive, they could have educated themselves long before this concerning accessibility."

The problem is compounded, added NFB spokesman Chris Danielsen, by the latest pilot program taking place this fall. "It's fine for Courseload to talk about accessibility. The problem is that they have rolled out and continue to roll out an inaccessible product to colleges and universities." He said the U.S. Department of Justice has been very clear: "Pilot projects are not exempt from the legal requirements that colleges and universities have" in complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. "They can call it a pilot project. That doesn't change anything."

Danielsen is referring to correspondence sent out by the Department during 2010 and 2011 reminding institutions to make sure that e-reader devices required in the classroom complied with accessibility laws.

Although legal remedies are available in dealing with accessibility issues, Taylor called litigation, "the last resource." "I believe that if Courseload is truly committed to accessibility--or any technology developer--they can find the right solution. And we will help them find the right solution so blind people will not be left behind."

No One Right Solution
Finding the right solution is elusive right now because there is no one right accessibility solution, according to Courseload Chief Technology Officer Steve Scott. "There are a wide variety of disabilities out there that require different adaptive techniques. Most students have learned an assistive technology that they've grown up with and have a very strong interest in continuing to use."

For that reason the company is pursuing what it calls an "alongside" strategy, which involves delivery of e-text in the standard format for sighted individuals along with content that's been republished by disabled student services in formats that are compatible with the user's choice of assistive technology.

That republication process, he said, might be to take the words off the pages of an electronic copy of the book, rearrange them, reorder them, and put them into a format that is printed to Braille or put into a Word document so it can be read by a screen reader in the correct reading order. In the process of doing that mitigation, he added, the conversion may also include describing the intent behind images for blind students who can't view the images. Or the text might be put into applications that are useful for students that have learning disabilities like dyslexia or attention deficit issues, "and those types of applications will highlight words and speak them at the same time, so the eyes follow what the ears are hearing."

Whatever the process happens to be, however, it's "lengthy and difficult." But it would be even harder, he added, "if they had to start with paper to do that." In that case, they'd have to get hold of a copy of the book, cut it apart, scan it, and do optical character recognition.

In the alongside approach, the expectation is that the disabled student service will continue to handle the work of republishing the content to be usable in the applications preferred by the students, and Courseload will focus on making accessible the special features of the platform, such as notes added by faculty. That, he said, is the company's first goal. "We'll be there by the end of this year. By the spring of 2013 we'll have instructors using the alongside strategy successfully with students with disabilities."

But the company's plans include two additional phases that will follow: the "personalized" model and the "adaptive" approach.

Scott said the personalized solution takes the republished textbooks being created by the disabled student organizations and merges them into the user experience "in a more unique fashion so that every student, if you will, gets their own book, and the book is tailored specifically to their personal needs. That is actually a nice step in the right direction that should feel very accommodating to most students."

But that's still not perfect, Scott said. "Ideally, if you look at the purists in the accessibility space, they'll say the content itself should be completely adaptable to every need." One of the hurdles is that "publishers and authors have a long way to go" in working to make the content "born accessible," where, for example, "the author was thinking about accessibility when he or she wrote the material or when collaborated on building the material."

Currently, he noted, "accessibility is tacked onto the end. That's the reality we live in."

The NFB's Taylor suggested that the EPUB 3 publishing format would go a long way in helping to deliver "accessible books right off the bat." EPUB3 is the current revision of a publishing specification developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum and approved in October 2011. Scott said that while the standard is a "nascent and growing technology" that shows a lot of promise, it's still "early in the game of adoption."

That brings up a good point. Publishers too should bear some measure of responsibility for the state of accessibility in the content they want used in an e-text format. Noted Courseload CEO Mickey Levitan, publishers give the matter "a whole range of response," from those who have a "high sensitivity and interest in making advances on accessibility" to those "who view this as a necessary evil." Levitan said one publisher told him, "We're not on the hook. It's the school that's on the hook. So this is not a concern of ours."

What the whole discussion on accessibility points out, Levitan said, was that there's a "shared interest here" among at least some publishers, a lot of institutions, and companies such as Courseload and CourseSmart. "These are very complex issues that will have to be resolved with collaboration of all of the key parties. I don't think that this is going to fall unduly on any one of those groups, but it's clear that it's going to have to be a collaborative multi-pronged effort if we're going to make progress possible."

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