Creating Accessible Content Elements in the Publishing Workflow

Inge de Mönnink, Dedicon: Take Part conference. Stockholm, May 2016

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Inge: Hi. Does anyone feel the need to do the stretch before I do this last talk? There are. You’re welcome. My name is Inge de Mönnink. I work with Dedicon. Dedicon is a Dutch accessibility vendor, not unlike MTM here in Sweden. Today, I am going to talk about a pilot project we are conducting at this moment, in which we try to establish a new collaboration model with our educational publishers in the Netherlands. The ultimate aim of this project is to get accessibility, accessible products to the reading-impaired learners quicker and better.

We try to do that by getting our accessible content into the publishing process of the educational publisher, which explains the title of my presentation, Creating accessible content elements in the publishing workflow. More about that later, but let me first take a few minutes to introduce Dedicon to you. We’re based in the Netherlands, as I said. Our aim is to create reading for all, which for us, means any place, any time, anything, anywhere. Anytime also means that the reading material has to be available at exactly the same time as the normal book or the normal product would be available, the normal print, say. That is not yet the case. There is room for improvement there for us.

We’re always trying to get our product process more efficient so that we can reach this ultimate aim. That’s also why we try to work in cooperation with our educational publishers and general publishers. We are a non-profit organization, mainly funded by the Dutch government directly but also indirectly through the National Library.

As I said, we work in close cooperation with the publishers. We work for over 40,000 disabled readers in the Netherlands and commissioned by the Dutch government and the libraries, we produce books including school books but also newspapers, magazines and other types of information for visually impaired readers, but also readers with dyslexia, a physical impairment or another impairment that prohibits them from reading the normal print.

Anyone who can’t read the normal print can order their books from us. Our products include, amongst others, braille, large print, DAISY audio, combinations of text and audio also, tactile images, and various digital text formats. As I said, we work in close cooperation with the publishers. In our publication workflow, or in our production workflow, this means that the publisher will try to give us the digital material when and where they have it available. Unfortunately, most of the time, this means that we get a PDF, which is nice but not good enough. In a minority of cases, we can sometimes get an EPUB 2 or an XML file.

After a pre-processing step, we send these files we get from the publishers to India, where they great an EPUB 3 file for us so that we can it more accessible. We have to look at the files, and where necessary, we will add extra accessibility especially where knowledge of the language is necessary or knowledge of the school contents or the didactic content. We think that this process is already pretty efficient. As I said, there is always room for improvement. At the back of the process, so in the EPUB 3, we can’t deliver EPUB 3 yet, all of the time. We need more readers, for example.

Also, at the beginning of the process, in our cooperation with the publishers, on this side of the process, I think there are two main aspects that can be improved.

First of all, of course, we can try to get better source material from the publishers. There is another inefficiency in this process which is less feasible but also harder to tackle. Publishers, in general, but especially educational publishers are fond of reusing content. At our side, we also create the same content at different times in the process. Sometimes, even months apart without knowing it because it’s in this book and in that book and in that book. We can’t detect this inefficiency. There are two things I would like to change in this pilot project, first of all, get better source material from the publishers.

Secondly, create accessibility for the same content element, only once, so not five times. The first objective, so to get better source material seems within reach because e-books are becoming common place. Let’s have a look at the e-book situation in the Netherlands nowadays.

Already 92% of all bestsellers in the Netherlands are available as an e-book. Unfortunately, most of these books are in EPUB 2 format or even still PDF. Only 2.6% of it is available as an EPUB 3 book. Why? Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that most e-books in the Netherlands are literary fiction. Those books that would gain most from being in an EPUB 3 format, non-fiction, educational books, travel books, for example, are underrepresented in the e-book market. Why is this? Why do some publishers deliver EPUB 3 books? Why the others find it hard to make the transition? What are commercial incentives, for example, for using EPUB 3? What is holding others back? Can we help them to cross that line?

Since EPUB 3 provides publishers with the means to create a single data source for all reading abilities, we want to stimulate the use of EPUB 3 in the Netherlands. We decided to organize an EPUB 3 event last year, that was April last year. Markus was one of the speakers at the events, so he may remember. We also had someone from Elsevier, Alicia Wise, she was mentioned in the first session as one of the speakers.

We invited publishers but also EPUB 3 specialists and accessibility specialists to share their knowledge and experience of EPUB 3. The day was for publishers but also very much run by publishers. In the presentations, the publishers specially focused on the possibility to add interactive and multi-modality to the publications in EPUB 3. That is probably one of the incentives, to use EPUB 3, one of the commercial incentives to us EPUB 3 for these publishers.

Of course, we also stretched and focused on the possibility to use or to add accessibility to those productions. Unfortunately, there was little interest from the educational publishers here. In general, what could we conclude from that day? Publishers have no knowledge of EPUB 3. They don’t know the difference between EPUB 3 and HTML 5.

They struggle. They are even holding back, discouraged by the large number of hardware and software readers that exist, and all the various types of documents that they accept or don’t accept. It’s hard for the publisher to overlook the whole area, it’s even harder for us, I think. It’s harder even still for the publishers.

They need help. We were still stuck after this day.

We were still stuck with these questions: How can we get accessible schoolbooks to the disabled learners in less time? In other words, how can we make our own production process more efficient? How can we interest the educational publishers in adopting EPUB 3 and even the EDUPUB standard? We had a closer look at our educational publishers and where they stand with regards to digital publishing. We found some really encouraging facts actually. They increasingly work XML-first. They already have or are still investing in intelligent XML-driven content management systems.

They recognize that their content is gold. They focus increasingly on the reuse of content by designing their content management architecture around reusable learning objects. They also want to get away from the digital book that merely … Which is no more than the print book on screen. Just think back of the first talk we had in this session. Instead, they want their schoolbooks to support fully personalized learning.

This is encouraged by a change in the Dutch school system since, as of August 2014, Dutch schools have a duty to care. This means that schools have the responsibility to provide a suitable learning place to every child including all children with special needs. Mainstream and special needs schools, they must cooperate to offer children such a learning place, preferably at a mainstream school. This calls for suitable educational material.

This is material that is tailored towards a child’s personal learning need. These can all be seen, I think, as commercial reasons to adopt EPUB 3. Unfortunately, there is no knowledge about EPUB 3 or EDUPUB. To get a better understanding of the challenges and changes that educational publishers face, we had a series of in-depth discussions with one of the major Dutch publishers, educational publishers, ThiemeMeulenhoff.

ThiemeMeulenhoff call themselves a learning design company. This already indicates that they are moving away from the traditional publishing company that they used to be. They fit in well with the picture I just sketched about a modern educational publisher. In their content management system, flexible and reusable learning objects play an important role. They have changed their approach from product-driven writing to topic-driven writing.

They closely combine learning design with technology. They have introduced several innovative products into the schools over the last few years. They work mostly with primary and secondary schools. They seem like the ideal publisher to do this pilot project with. Here again, Thieme Meulenhoff want their digital products to really add something to the learning process. They do not want to substitute the book onscreen or on the device.

They do not even want to add some extra functionality to the paper book, like interactivity or multi-modality. They want to fully redefine the concept of the schoolbook and thereby, support personalized learning. They’re not sure yet what that means. This is the wish they have for the future. They try to aim their whole production process towards this wish. This is ideal for us because this is also want we want, personalized learning, right.

Thieme have various digital output platforms which they developed over the last few years. They want to be able to produce both printed products as well as digital products for these various platforms. They have created and are still working an XML-first creation process, all designed to create various accretions of reusable learning objects in the various output formats. Given all that background information, how can an educational publisher and an accessibility expert like Dedicon cooperate? In our pilot project, we established two main points of focus together with Thieme, which are raising awareness and tuning our publishing workflows. First of all we want raise awareness, awareness of disabilities, of accessible publishing, of the various standards like EPUB 3 and EDUPUB. Also, we want to have a look at our production processes and how we can tune them to become more efficient with regards to accessibility. Why raise awareness and how can we raise awareness?

We want to develop or we have developed interactive workshops that we’d want to give to the publishers or do with the publishers. We think that it’s really important that all the disciplines within the publishing company are involved in these workshops. Ranging from authors, designers, all the way up to the management team. In raising awareness, we want to address four topics. We want participants to understand but also to experience with what it means to have a reading disability. We want them to understand what we add to their current content to make it more accessible. We want them to understand and also to practice with the tools that the print disabled readers use.

We want to tell them about existing guidelines that they can use to add accessibility to their content. By doing this, we hope also, at least I hope, that we can maybe find the few people in the publishing companies who have the same intrinsic motivation like the people at Elsevier, for example, so that they can really make this change within their own publishing company, even without a clearly money-driven motivation.

This is a picture of a simulation of a visual impairment. It’s just one of the ways that you can create awareness for the various reading disabilities that people struggle with. I want to tell you something about the accessibility we create and add to the publisher’s content. Most of you will be very familiar with this so I’ll go through it very quickly. We make linear representations of formula, for example. We provide text alternatives to pictures. We also provide alternative pictures, so more simplified pictures either for screen or to use as a tactile drawing. In some cases, we fully adapt the assignment in a book when it’s not accessible to the reader, specifically the visual impaired reader.

In this case, for example, you need to draw lines between a text and a picture, and then create a new word using the letters in the picture, you can do such an assignment but in a different way. We give them a different assignment with the same didactic result, so so much about awareness. Let’s go into the second focus, tuning the publishing workflows. What if publishers would design, develop and distribute well-structured digital documents that are inherently accessible at the source, are compatible with accessible screen readers or other readers, and have setting or personal on-screen display?

For some of you, this may seem like an old wish. Keep in mind that in the Netherlands, there is no accessibility legislation for publishers, as in many other countries. This wish is still very much on topic. What if we can get publishers to apply accessibility guidelines as far as can be expected? I don’t expect our Dutch educational publishers to be come accessibility experts or to even have accessibility in their teams.

I don’t think within the next couple of years, this will be the case. We can, I think, convince them to add some normal or some typical aspects of accessibility that they can use in their publication workflows as well. Think of a well-defined structure, language text perhaps, good contrast in everything that you do, perhaps even text alternatives for some of your pictures because if you add a text alternative, perhaps you can even find the picture better and reuse it better. We have to find the line. Where does it stop for the publisher? What can we do? Then as an expert, we want to cooperate with the publisher and add our accessibility content directly into their learning objects, their reusable learning objects.

There, you can think of the examples that I just gave you. The tactile drawings, for example, you can add the extra picture with the picture of the publisher so that a learner can print it themselves, for example, or they can order it from us. You can think of the adapted assignments for visually impaired learners, for example. I think we can do that in four steps ranging from nice to ideal. Of course, we want the last to happen.

First of all, it would be nice if publishers could provide us with well-structured EPUB 3. Secondly, it would be nice if the publisher could provide the learner with well-structured EPUB 3 because for many learners, especially the large group of dyslexic learners, a well-structured EPUB 3 would solve most of the problems they face, together of course, with the reader that can use the EPUB 3.

As a third step, it would be wonderful if we could add our accessible content directly into the publishing workflow. Last but not least, it would be ideal if the publisher could provide fully accessible material directly to all learners at the same time. Let’s have a closer look at step three. How can we add our content to the publishing workflow? This is where the reusable learning objects I just talked about come in. In a fairly standard modern publication workflow, authors, editors, designers and composers all add their content directly into a predefined XML structure.

What I want is to add an extra block to this schema so that we can add our accessible content or accessible alternatives directly into the XML structure as well. In this schema, the XML block is the reusable learning object. This means that every time that this reusable learning object is used in a new publication, for example in a book or in an e-course, the accessibility is already guaranteed. That would mean that no more double work is needed. Also, that the print-disabled learner could have the accessible content at the same time if the other learners have it.

Also, in the form that they require it, if they need audio, the audio is available. If they need braille, the braille is available. If they need simplified or different texts, different font types, larger font types, it’s available. You can have a really personalized learning experience and an accessible learning experience at the source. Mission accomplished. Let’s go to our next steps. We are enthusiastic about this cooperation mostly because they recognize that it’s a small step from their current publication process to EPUB 3.

Also, that EPUB 3 and EDUPUB especially fit in well with their wish to offer a personalized learning experience for all. That is a commercial wish so we have a fit, I think. They are, at the moment, investigating the possibility to produce EPUB 3 from their normal publication workflow. They’re also investigating, which I am really happy with the possibility to provide us with access to their publication workflow in the same way that they provide their authors access to the publication workflow.

At the same time, we try to get more publishers involved in this process because then there is a larger basis, of course, for ultimately, success and a really different cooperation with all the educational publishers, we hope, in the Netherlands. Thank you very much for you attention.

Markus: Questions for Inge? Again, I hate to see speakers go with no questions, so I’m wondering, thinking particularly about image description which seems to me like a near infinite amount of work in the world.

There is just, I mean, millions and millions of images that want what ideally like to describe. Can you talk about any creative or any alternative approaches to that? I’m particularly thinking about crowd sourcing, I don’t know if that’s realistic and how you might do quality control. Maybe you need sighted readers to vote on the accuracy of the crowd source descriptions. Then readers that are using the descriptions to vote on their clarity on something. 

Inge: It seems to me that just paying people to describe images is only going to get you to the very most important and perhaps, it’s the self-educational content, but as you go further, theoretically wanting everything to be readable, then you got to describe every image in every book which is tens and millions of things. How could we approach that in a way that might be creative and get us far? Inge: Well, first of all, I think that in many cases, the designer of the picture, you don’t have to describe every picture in a schoolbook. Many pictures in the schoolbooks have no functionality at all, at least in the Netherlands, that is very much the case. You only have to fully describe all the pictures that have a didactic meaning in the process.

I think that many of the designers of those pictures know really well what they want with it. Perhaps and the authors are the best people to ask for a didactically fine description. Perhaps that’s never going to happen because that costs too much, I don’t know. We’ve been looking into other ways to deal with pictures. One of them is of course to detect the content of the picture automatically, the way that Google does it nowadays with all the pictures that we have online for example.

Can we use that as well for our target group? I think for general pictures, that is possible in the next few years, or even now. For pictures in schoolbooks, that’s much more harder because there you have a lot of schematic pictures and things like that. It’s harder to get a really good description of that I think automatically. Then, of course, you can do some crowd sourcing thing because you can use the experience of the teachers, for example. The way they would explain the picture to a reading or a visually-impaired reader.

Markus: Also mention, were you talking about DIAGRAM? OK. In terms of sharing and caring, there is actually a project called “The DIAGRAM Project,” diagramproject.org which was created for that purpose. It’s anchored with Bookshare and DAISY is a member as well. The idea there is to setup a repository where basically populated by open source, image descriptions, as well as a model for how to describe them. It’s not just plain text but there is a model, that descriptions for this age range, cognitive disability and so on. There is some intended richness. It’s funded by the US Department of Education. Where it is in terms of take off, I don’t know. Is there anybody here who knows more about DIAGRAM than I do?

You’re very far from the mic. Brad Turner  is with DIGRAM.

Markus: Perfect. There, Brad Turner’s presentation, tomorrow afternoon will cover this topic. Goddammit, before lunch, thank you. Yes.

Here is a question from Steve.

Steve: It’s not really a question, it’s a followup to the original point about Diagram Access or image access through crowd sourcing. For me, that is absolutely one of the things that would take … Well, I would refer to as a strategic sustainable approach. If we could create straightforward guidance for people to go to do that, and that there was a self-policing element around whether it’s a voting process or indeed, the sampling process or any number of things. For me, that is the type of thing that would be on my list.

Speaker from the audience: I loved your point about creating reusable accessibility elements. I was just a little bit puzzled because so much of the documentation that I’ve read has talked about creating accessibility in context. I just wondered if you could comment on that.

Inge: I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear the middle part of your question.

Speaker from the audience: Sorry. I was wondering if you could comment on a lot of the documentation that I’ve read about creating accessibility in context, especially when it comes to image description. That seems to contrast with reusable accessibility.

Inge: I don’t know what you’ve written of course. .

Speaker form the audience: No, not my documentation, public documentation. In particular with image descriptions, working with the surrounded text and assessing whether the image description is necessary in providing image descriptions and other descriptive elements that work in particular with the surrounding elements.

Inge: Yeah. Reusable learning object is never just a picture. It’s always an assignment of text with the picture and whatever it takes to make a full assignment. It’s the bit that you need for a topic, to learn a particular topic. It can even be three assignments with text and pictures. What we do and what we want to do in the future as well is to have a look at this whole and at the didactic principle behind it. What do we need to make this fully accessible for the visually impaired learner mostly?

Then when you look at the whole, you can always determine what you need. That is what our text publishers do already at Dedicon. The process is not very different from the process we do now. The difference is that we do it when the reusable learning object is created at the publisher and only once. Because now, the reusable learning object is used, we have six different levels at our secondary schools. One learning object can be used in all six books. We don’t know it. We do it six times. We don’t even know if we do it in exactly the same way, all these six times. You want to do it only once. You can still have a look at the whole concept.

Speaker from the audience: OK. Pedro Milliet from Brazil.  I am curious just about an average time it takes for you to make the adaptation, the image descriptions, math formulas and things like that for high complexity book of maths in let’s say second grade of the high school. Inge: Yeah. The whole process now, from the start getting the digital material from the publisher and then ultimately giving it to the reading-impaired reader, it takes about six to nine weeks. [Pedro] Six to nine weeks? OK, almost two months. Thank you.

Markus: All right. That takes us more or less exactly to the coffee break. A big applause to Inge. Thank you very much for your presentation.

Inge: Thank you.