The American Textbook Accessibility Act

Summary:Yesterday, I posted some thoughts about Arizona State University's use of the Kindle in a pilot program and the heat the school was taking over the inability of blind students to use the devices. While the controversy seemed overblown to me, it sparked an interesting conversation with fellow blogger, Jason Perlow.

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts about Arizona State University's use of the Kindle in a pilot program and the heat the school was taking over the inability of blind students to use the devices. While the controversy seemed overblown to me, it sparked an interesting conversation with fellow blogger, Jason Perlow.

Oftentimes, when people talk about accessibility, they are referring to accommodations that allow disabled people to access a particular resource. Braille texts, for example, or text-to-speech for the visually impaired make books accessible. However, as Jason and I discussed, real accessibility goes way beyond enabling text-to-speech on a Kindle.

This is 2009. Anyone have a decent reason why the best we can do for an electronic textbook is a Kindle loaded with 30 vanilla e-books? 40 years ago, we put men on the moon because we wanted to; we wanted to be competitive and win the space race. Enormous efforts were undertaken at the federal level to ensure that all of the technology came together to achieve the goal of landing on the moon and, conspiracy theories aside, we did it. Now, well after the turn of the millennium, our students are still lugging dead tree textbooks with no hooks to online resources and access to interactive demos and multimedia largely limited to separate CD-ROMs, with no end in sight.

I've already blogged quite a bit about the lack of e-textbook content:

I'm working on a story to actually assess the state of development among big-name textbook publishers and will have more soon on that. For right now, though, it's quite clear that we have a very long ways to go. While a lack of content is a major issue, perhaps a bigger issue is the lack of standards via which the content can be disseminated. Obviously, DRM is a serious problem for textbooks. Copyright aside, though, there are currently around 30 formats in which e-books are published.

If you're Pearson, into which basket will you be throwing all of your eggs?

Frankly, there is only one that I see that makes a lot of sense right now. EPUB, developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum, is open, XML-based, and can grow as our needs increase. Even this format, though, needs traction with major publishers.

Alternatively, it needs the sort of federal backing that got us on the moon. Well, ok, maybe not that much backing, but we need a standard and we need content. We need it sooner than later and it needs to be accessible to students worldwide, with and without disabilities. It's time that the government stepped into this and mandated creation of an open, extensible standard. I even have a name for the legislation: "The American Textbook Accessibility Act." Catchy, isn't it?

I won't go so far as to suggest that the government also mandate that publishers port all of their content to the standard. However, a single standard for texts that allowed for rich content and that would be forward compatible for many years to come would encourage content development like nothing else.

The technology is here. We can make devices in color and we can make them cheaply. XML is mature and has precisely the sort of forward compatibility and richness we need (assuming that an ebook-XML format is maintained by a standards body) for textbooks.

We all know the expression, "Build it and they will come." E-readers like the Kindle have been built and the textbook publishers have not come. Not by a long shot. Build a standard around which an ecosystem of hardware and software can grow and I think you'll see content following very shortly thereafter.

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About

Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a... Full Bio

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