E-Textbooks and the Blind

If you are blind and studying any of the sciences, there are a lot of obstacles in your way. One of them is the textbook. Somehow, you must get the printed page converted to something you can hear, or feel, in order to read it. Figures and pictures will be even tougher. E-textbooks seem like a step forward because the already electronic text can simply be read out loud by the computer. But it seems like the current e-textbooks are still a step backwards for blind students, as some of the pilot programs trying e-textbooks on campus have drawn rebukes from the National Federation for the Blind.

The problem is not the text itself, which current e-readers like the Kindle can read aloud. Rather, its all the functionality around the text. In the case of the Kindle, the menus are not read out. This means, right at the start, a student who can't see would not even be able to find the textbook in their online store to buy it. Nor could they navigate to open the textbook up on the device, or to use any other features like bookmarking. Amazon and the other companies making e-book readers will surely fix this soon, but it points out a larger problem as we move to e-texts.

One of the promises of e-texts, especially in the sciences, is that they will be more than just passive textbooks. They will incorporate animations and videos, feedback on students performance, simulations, and other activities that make time spent on learning at home an active learning process. This is what we do in our SimUText system with our interactive ecology chapters, where we tightly integrate the standard text and figures with all kinds of learning tools where students can practice using the knowledge they are gaining. But even more so than pure text, many of these activities are very hard to do for students that cannot see. An activity where students conduct a simulated experiment, for instance, might ask students to observe some phenomenon on the screen and record their observation, just as in a real laboratory. How would the computer substitute for visual observation with sounds or touch? It's a tricky problem.

We don't have the answer to that yet, but it's something we're starting to work on with the help of the National Science Foundation, and partnering with ViewPlus Technologies, a company that makes printers for blind students and scientists. Our idea in the grant is to try alternate modalities to sight to let students explore scientific simulations. We are hopeful that using a combination of sound, tactile printing, and careful design, we can make our virtual biology labs and interactive chapters universally accessible. Its going to take a good deal of experimentation to figure out how to do it, but it'd be really nice to make a small contribution towards opening the world of science and science education to students that can't see.

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