The American Textbook Accessibility Act

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.

Topics: Laptops, CXO, Hardware, Mobility, Security, Tablets, IT Employment

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Chris, you're dreaming

    The only way this is going to get a Federal charter is if someone with enough muscle gets to skim rents.

    None of the players have enough concentrated political pull to overcome the others who would gang up to block the monopoly play, so it's not going to happen.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • RE: The American Textbook Accessibility Act

    Chris -

    Please refer to the DAISY ANSI/NISO standard for digital audio books. It is also XML based and highly accessible -- to all readers, including people with disabilities:


    Mike Paciello
    Founder & Principal, TPG
    Tel: +1 603.882.4122 ext 103
    Cell: +1 603.566.7713
  • RE: The American Textbook Accessibility Act

    I think we have enough government in our lives already.
    Let's let the market sort this one out for a change.
    • And While We're At It...

      Let's have the government regulate all of our meals, what we wear, what we watch on TV and who we date and marry. I'm really going to hate Oyster days. The market will settle who wins this battle not the government. Even if a lesser standard wins out, it will be because the people have adopted it beyond all of the other formats. Remember VHS vs. Betamax? BluRay vs. HDDVD? Whoever offers the best selection of titles at the best prices will win and that's the way it should be. As for me, I won't be buying any eReader until they are displaying full living color.... comic books look awful in B&W. ;-)
    • Re: Letting the market sort it out

      While agree in many respects that we have too much government, this is
      not the kind of thing the market is good at sorting out. There are simply
      not large enough numbers of blind people to affect that kind of change.
      What it takes is for people to see the value in designing products and
      services that are accessible to everyone from inception to final product.
      Today, access is a clunky retrofit in most cases.
      • Oh, well I have a government-style solution, then

        Let's determine how many blind people are required to 'affect that kind of change', and then poke the eyes out of that number of sighted people. Problem solved. Market created by government intervention.
        People already do see the value in designing products and services that are accessible to the crippled. And a price tag has been placed on that value.
  • RE: The American Textbook Accessibility Act

    If it was such a viable business model the textbook manufacturers would have already established a standard. We don't need the government to force cost on the manufacturer or technology on the consumer when neither appears to be very interested.

    Notwithstanding my love of technology, like it or not, most folks still prefer physical books. When the market changes, the technology will change.
  • RE: The American Textbook Accessibility Act

    Hell, No!!! The moment the government gets its tentacles in it, it will be rendered thoroughly useless. Get the goverment out of the banks, the auto industry, heatlh care and everything else except national defense and internal order. Thanks.
    • Uh huh

      So the government cut banking regulation and look what happened. Let's face it - most markets are driven by profits (greed). If the textbook publishers are making ridiculous profits from physical media, why would they switch to e-books? It's not like the audience is going to increase.
      • Deutsche

        Government regulation in no small part led to this mess. Who do you think created mortgage pools and futures market trading and the companies behind them (Fredi and Fannie). Learn think and then speak.

        I lived in a country where the government did everything for (I mean to) its' citizens. It wasn't good, people where willing to leave everything they had behind just to get out. My parents abandoned their lives and professions so my brother and I could have a chance at freedom and the persuit of happiness.

        To my horror I see where this is going and the difference is that there is no place left to run to. Every democracy has the government it deserves, good luck you liberal fools.
    • Small Government is Good Government

      The American Textbook Accessibility Act is one of those "wonderful" liberal ideas that is brilliantly bad! I agree that there are very few things the Feds should be involved with and this is NOT one of them.

      Having said this, I do believe there is a need for education reform and that e-books cold be one tool used by schools to be more competitive and deliver a higher ROI for students. If the government is going to be involved at all it should be to enact legislation that would create a national standard for core classes and proficiency levels, NOT GRADES (K-18), used as a measure of learners progress through a lifetime of education.
      John Westra
  • Standards, Yes; Federal Mandate, Heck NO!

    Chris, I agree that adoption of technology is greatly
    enhanced when a group of open standards is adopted.
    Even the Blu Ray vs. HD DVD war eventually ended in a
    single format. The battle slowed adoption rates, but in the
    end a single winner emerged.

    But, maybe as a result of the Obama administration, people
    are running to the federal government for everything. I am
    of the bent that I don't trust government to be effective or
    efficient at anything it does. I would love to see a single
    format that all e-books would conform to, but if it came
    from the federal government, my assumption is that it
    would suck. We can work these kinds of things out in the
    market and with standards setting bodies, but leave the
    fed out of it.
  • RE: The American Textbook Accessibility Act

    I rarely use such language, so I won't say this was actually one of the stupidest suggestions I ever saw an irresponsible media outlet publish under its name. No, I won't.

    I actually wonder if this isn't really just a troll, it is so seemingly designed to just annoy people.

    Actually, not only should the feds mandate e-Book standards, they should also mandate the use of the English language only for all books. And oh, of course, they should also mandate what is said in all those books. Exactly.

    Oh, and all books should be the same size and number of pages because, you know, that's a standard, right?
  • government mandated standards?

    You mean like the standards that have dumbed down public education in the whole of the country. You're kidding, right?
    • Standards disasters

      [i]You mean like the standards that have dumbed down public education in the whole of the country. You're kidding, right? [/i]

      Or the electrical standards on connectors, voltages, frequencies, etc. Look at the mess that [i]they[/i] turned out to be. And don't get me started on weights and measures ...
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • can't blame the feds for this!

      States set educational standards. Big states determine text book contents because of volume purchases. Given a state (say Texas) with weird standards (say teaching creationism) you get unsatisfactory text books, no matter what the delivery medium.
  • American Government.. accesible worldwide..


    "Alternatively, it needs the sort of federal backing that got us on the moon."

    Only if moon is a place in Hawaii and not the Moon as a natural satellite.

    • Moon in Hawaii

      There was a moon in Hawaii, a brew pub called "Brew Moon." But it
      closed due to lack of business (and no government support). ;-)
  • Thank you guys!

    I was again enraged by the Marxist slant of ZDNet, and saw that other readers picked up the free market flag.

    I hate DRM, however, if you want to destroy what little decent publishing there is in academia, force publishers to put out unprotected works. Imagine a company that must sell only say 5,000 copies of a book before it needs to be redone. Then imagine a poor, tech savvy customer base with their morality not fully developed. It would be a joke, no one would buy textbooks anymore (at least digitally) and publishers would switch to other business models.
    • What about copy machines?

      We have had the technology to copy paper books for much longer than electronic books have been around, so how is an open format any worse than that? Not to mention that you can hack a DRM.