For years universities and colleges have demanded alternative formats of educational materials from publishing houses. One of the largest challenges has been to produce the format students in college desire. With a hundred different ways to produce content, some publishers say they’ve got to find a more suitable format that we can all work with –EPUB may be that format. However, many alternative media professionals are struggling with this format because their students prefer those formats that they’ve received in the past.
Publishers use to send pdf files. Originally these were often picture pdf files – inaccessible pdf — but this goes back a few years. Then they sent colleges and universities pdf files that at least had the text accessible. Alt media folks at universities could take these files and generate a variety of accessible file types, including braille, DAISY, KESI files, word or RTF files, txt files, etc. Some students wanted their book in pdf format so they could still have the look and feel of the book design. Others only wanted the text, and others wanted just mp3 audio files. *Daisy was also pushed as the best at one point. There were all sorts of problems with generating all these different file types. No one was truly happy.
Time to Convert Books
Converting books took hours to do when tasked with adding in the semantic structure, and forget even thinking about labelling all the pictures and charts or adding back in the page numbers, too! For each element that one student may need, the next student may not. I recall that adding in headings structure, that was originally only graphically in place in the book, took as much time to create as the rest of the work for producing an e-book.
To efficiently generate alt formats, one really needs to start at the book design stage. Yeah right! That’s a pipe dream at best – this is a messy subject because it covers a lot of different types of organizations, all which in the spirit of democracy will have to find common ground. Getting everyone to agree to a format has never happened, and innovation is stifled by such concepts, regardless of the intent.
Solution for Publishers
While EPUB may be a solution for publishers, it may generate a lot of resistance from the accessibility community. However, the money and power is in the hands of the publishers, who are at least taking responsibility for addressing accessibility – that surely should be applauded.
EPUB files have some properties that may hinder access. The notorious one is called DRM protection. This format is created to (most likely) protect copyright. That has always been an issue for the publishers from day one. I’ve never used a tool that can strip this protection, though the web shows that there are means to do it (see below for link).
Some colleges and universities may not have software that can read out loud EPUB software. Solutions exist. Kurweil is known to be able to read EPUB files. ReadNWrite can also. I cannot ascertain whether Wynn can. They have a facility for sending files to a virtual printer, which converts them.
In the Kasdorf article referenced below, he quotes George Kerscher, CIO of the *Daisy consortium: “The inherent accessibility of an EPUB far surpasses that of PDF in many ways.” Textbook publishers are trying to replace sending out PDF files for a more robust file format. Many of the large companies are moving into using software they choose such as Vitalsource. Personally, I’ve tested some of these solutions, and they do provide accessible content, but maybe not for every possible person. I’m seeing this a
s progress, as for the vast majority of students with disabilities these new formats work fine. Since Daisy consortium found the EPUB 3 to be the approved for distribution noting that EPUB 3 is aligned with HTML 5 and supports audio, video, interactivity and a whole lot of other important functionalities of digital publishing.
This means that publishers can go about creating content that meets the business model of the highly competitive marketplace and reach their goals for accessibility. But it requires a format that disability support services providers may not be ready for.
Last year at the Accessing Higher Ground Conference (2017) the case of EPUB versus PDF was taken up by someone from the publishing industry. Rachel Comerford, director of Content Standards at Macmillan Learning spoke about how EPUB was the solution her company was using. She is also the co-chair for the W3C EPUB Community Group. The main point to take away from the presentation is that times have changed and word and pdf files are not the ideal experience for students with print disabilities. She stated “Macmillan is producing only EPUBs from copyright 2017 on.”
“The following slide was taken from her presentation:
Differences between EPUB and PDF:
- Mobility/Reflowing – Students are reading on a variety of devices and in this case, size matters. EPUBs have a reflowable format: line length changes based on size of the screen
- Inherent accessibility of an EPUB – Using an out of the box, unremediated EPUB is easier to use than an out of the box, unremediated pdf
- Remediating PDF requires source file, reprints require starting from scratch – When the textbook your psych department is using goes into a new edition – you are remediating a new pdf from scratch
- Less interactivity possible in a PDF – Students receiving a pdf while peers use an EPUB are deprived of pop-up definitions that are within the text, answerable assessment, etc
- HOWEVER – You can’t remediate EPUBs on your own unless you know html and css, and the EPUB isn’t protected (DRM).
Format is Stripped?
Another negative about EPUB is that the documents usually are formatted like a text file. The document flow and structure from the printed form is stripped way. I know for some students, generally those who have vision, the structure of the file my help them with their handling a book’s complex content – especially when associated with the tables, figures, and photos. Others may prefer the bimodal reading, but not want to lose the graphical layout which helps them understand tables within pages and other referenced graphics and sidebars. This will also be confusing for folks trying to keep up with in-class readings.
Overall, it seems that this is a new wave of change, but it may be a bit off shore at present. Let’s see how these changes impact both accessibility of instructional materials and the ability of universities to accommodate their print impaired students. I hope it rolls into a bigger more universally acceptable design for learning that offers multiple formats for everyone interacting with academic content. UDL is the future in my opinion of accessibility.
References and Resources
*The DAISY Consortium is a registered not-for-profit global collective of organizations committed to delivering worldwide change to achieve a common Vision that “People have equal access to information and knowledge regardless of disability; a right confirmed by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” DAISY helps to mainstream standards, develop guidelines to promote best practices, raise awareness of accessible reading systems and support open standards for inclusive publishing.