Accessible Reading on Mainstream ebook Platforms

Rick Johnson, VitalSource: Take Part Conference. Stockholm, May 2016

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Video transcription

– Good morning, everyone. I’m told we can get started now so apologies for people who are still coming in. I think we’re already about five minutes late so good to start.

My name is Margaret McGrory. I work for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Canada. I’m headquartered in Toronto for those of you who know Canada and for the past few days here in Stockholm it was reminiscent of Toronto in November.

It was so cold, but I gotta say it’s lovely today because we’re all leaving, I guess, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful city. It’s been a pleasure to be here. So thank you for the invitation. I’m also on the DAISY Board, and I co-chair the Accessible Books Consortium that Monica Halil was talking about yesterday afternoon in her presentation.

So today it’s my pleasure to introduce the speakers for this morning’s session who are going to talk to us about the accessible reading or accessible e-reading experience. We begin with our keynote speaker Rick Johnson. Rick is the Vice president of product strategy, and founder of VitalSource Technologies which is now a division of Ingram Content Group and I understand that VitalSource is the maker of Bookshelf which is apparently the most widely used platform for the delivery of electronic textbooks in the world. Interestingly, at least I thought, in his bio, Rick says that his career has been focused on bringing together his three passions: technology, publishing, and education. Rick’s topic today for the keynote is accessible reading on mainstream e-book platforms. So, over to you, Rick. Thank you.

– [Rick Johnson] Thank you very much. I think as she mentioned, and I would agree, we’re having a great conference. It’s been a beautiful city to host us and it’s lovely to be here today. A little bit of coming home for me. My family on my father’s side originally from the Varmland area. My mother’s side originally from the Linkoping area. So sort of an old boy comes home week for me here. I’m gonna enjoy the country here this week while I’m looking around.

My own story though starts a little bit differently, a little bit, in my own personal life. As she mentioned, I am one of the founders of VitalSource. Had a wonderful stint at Apple Computer before this. Had been involved in a number of different initiatives and I’m on a couple of boards that you’ll hear me talk about later on here but my own story really on accessibility starts as a university student in my first year at university when I was living in the dormitories and another student in the dormitory with me, who I had to get to know because we shared the same name, Rick also, but Rick was a music major.

He was an organist, and here I’m looking at this wonderful organ up here but Rick was blind, and this was a first for me. An old farm boy from Minnesota, grew up in California, now attending college and had never really been introduced to this whole part of society before and I got to know Rick quite well. Rick would take me into his practice sessions in the organ and he would describe for me what he was seeing as he was playing the organ and he would describe how it would make him feel and how it would move him and the visuals that he saw, and he had never seen at all during his life but this was what he was seeing and colors and shapes and action and it opened up a whole new world for me. It’s something I had not been exposed to before and as I moved  through my career and my time at Apple Computer, a lot of user-centered design, a lot of user-centered focus, a lot of wonderful time at really focusing on what does the end user need in technology.

And then as I moved into my current career with VitalSource, had some wonderful engineers who, like many of us, we have a personal connection. We have fathers who are struggling or mothers who are struggling with needs. I have nephews who are autistic. We have, all of us, moving into the ages where we need things like this and glasses to enjoy reading again. And as we move into the experience, I had the wonderful opportunity of driving a message home of accessibility in a product that we were creating as well.

And as we look at what I’m gonna talk about today it’s sort of the opposite of what was wonderfully shared this morning in not designing for the end, and the aged and the issues that are dealing what they were designing for the learning process which is lifelong now. Starts when you’re in school, young, continues on through life now because education and learning is really changing in our society now. You’re here today because of this wordy description that was in the brochure and I appreciate you choosing to come here.

Let me lighten this up for you here. What are we here to talk about today is really this right here. That education is changing right now and the next generation of learning is starting all around us. And it bears very little resemblance to what I went through, what others have gone through, what traditionally you have gone through in the educational systems that are being used right now and have been used up till now. The learning content and the learning systems of tomorrow, are really gonna be built on something very different than what is there today.

Today you have a predominance of systems that are in place but we will have a confederation of systems that will be built around standards, will be built around interoperability, will be built around a number of key points that drive things to enable new learning, as well as adhere to standards that by default means the content and the learning process is born digital and it’s also born accessible. And that’s what I want to talk to you about here today.

The current process, if you’re familiar with education right now, is very much labor intensive. We expect students to get the content that we need. We expect students to sign up for the classes. Typically when the courses start, then there’s a lot of flurry of activity, of getting and making sure you have what’s needed to learn in the course, you have what’s needed to get through the course.

If you need help or accommodation, if you have a disability and you need some assistance with that or other formats or other content, as we’ve heard about throughout the conference here, you have to seek out that help typically. And there’s just a lot of delays in the process that typically are the norm more than a smooth, easy process that we want learners to have. And this is the change that’s going on in education right now. There’s a vision that’s being crafted by a number of companies working together, one of them that started in 2014 was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a study with EDUCAUSE to seek out what are the changes that are going on? What are the changes that are happening, the fundamental changes in education and what does this look like for the future and how does this work towards the future?

And what they found was that the current educational meme, to use an internet term, the current model that people are used to is really very focused on courses and instructors and yet new models are emerging that are flipping that around, that are bringing in new capabilities, that are bringing a lot more dynamic and interactive capabilities that are emerging and while you have these great systems in place around the LMS, the learning management system or the ELO or VLE, as it may be called, depending on which country you’re from, what you are seeing is that there’s typically not a lot of use of the advanced features in there because there isn’t time to set that up.

There isn’t an ease of use. There isn’t the ability to integrate in all the different parts that I want to have as an instructor to teach and to learn this. And so we get what’s called in the study, a conspicuous restlessness. There’s a desire to use this but there’s this churn for, “I want something more. I want something different.” And we even see that as we do the surveys, that people are looking to change and people are looking to say, “Well, if this LMS didn’t work, maybe I need to change and buy something else.”

Or, “If this didn’t work, maybe we need to use something else here.” And even in all of those models, there’s still the worry about how do I make sure that every learner has the content that’s needed? How do I make sure that every learner has access to the content in the environment that they can best learn from? Yet the LMSs are all still very successful in some things. They’re very successful in the administration of learning and organizing the learning, in pulling together the capabilities that are needed to fundamentally drive the academic side of the learning process but they need to embrace the new models of learning and to embrace the new models of content and where they fit in.

And that is this vision that’s been created that’s called The Next Generation of the Digital Learning Environment. And this environment is not something you will buy. It’s not something you will get. It is a confederation of different systems that will come together and will interoperate and provide capabilities to advance the learning process as the learners are moving through there. It is a LEGO set, to use an analogy from my childhood. To bring together LEGOs and construct exactly what’s needed personalized for that user, accommodating the needs of that user to bring together the learning process.

And this next generation environment has a couple of key characteristics that I want to talk about, actually five. The first one, as I’ve mentioned a couple times is interoperability, and this is key because when you’re confederating these systems together, you have to make sure that there are things like common formats, content needs to be able to flow between instructor and learner and user groups and different ad hoc environments or courses or classes that are set up formally and be able to use the content but yet set it up very simple and set it up very easily for people to be able to take advantage of it and the structures – to be able to learn and to use it.

There needs to be an exchange of data between these different environments, between these different pieces of content as they’re building them together. So that we know what’s going on but yet privacy is maintained, but yet coherence is there for the overall learning objectives and missions of the university to get that in there. So interoperability is the number one point. The second thing and really depending on interoperability is personalization. Making sure that two things happen in this environment.

One that the environment itself can adapt and change to described needs of the user. So I know that this user coming in has these needs and I need to make sure that we’ve taken care of that. But the second is also to provide that feedback to the user to say as I’m going through my learning journey and my process, what does this look like? The third key area is analytics, of course. As we’re moving through this, the data about what’s happening and that free exchange of data to not only configure, to not only describe, but also to help the advisers and to help those who are in the learning process to work with the learners and to walk them through what’s going on and what they’re struggling with and what they’re dealing with. The fourth area is collaboration.

Building up two different types of environments. One, public spaces, typical classroom space that’s very public. And they can work and have different levels of study groups or classrooms but also private spaces where I can go in and I can deal with my information in a private world and interoperate and have these mentor involvements and have this capability of driving in how I’m working together or how I’m working alone as I’m moving through my learning process. And then the last area, of course, why we’re here, is accessibility.

All of this has to be built in, not just an assumption but a requirement that universal design is present in each of these areas to make sure that we’ve accommodated the needs of every user and to also understand that there’s two things happening in this new environment, in this next generation environment. There aren’t just users who are learners and there aren’t just users who are instructors but everyone involved here is both a creator and a user of content as they’re interoperating and working and collaborating together.

I’m using but I’m also creating and sharing and this joint interoperation, this joint capability of working together has got to provide an environment that is by design accessible. So let’s drop in and take a look at a couple of key areas to describe some of these.

Because really delivering learning in this environment is gonna require that all of these areas are involved, each of these areas are involved in every aspect and we have to move forward as an industry to describe and really drive each of these five areas into the new capabilities and this new learning environment. But not only in the environment as a whole but the content has to align with these as well. And the content that’s being used to deliver these has to create interoperability, allow personalization, enable the analytics to know what’s going on, let collaboration happen, and be accessible by design.

So let’s drill down on this. The first one, interoperability. I mentioned I’m on a couple of boards of directors. You’ve heard a number of different sessions here a couple of things being talked about. One of them is file formats. DAISY a fantastic file format for providing great access to reading content. DAISY in working with the IDPF in creating EPUB 3 and this great next version of really fundamentally, fully accessible content in a mainstream environment and the IDPF is the organization that runs and maintains the EPUB 3 standard. Working with the W3C, working with a group called IMS Global, they’re also taking and maintaining this interoperability standard around a profile of EPUB called EPUB for Education.

And what EPUB for Education does is enable magic to happen in the classroom. It lets me as a user go into my course environment and say, “Well, if I have an assignment to read a book, what’s the most frustrating thing that can happen?” I read a book and now I’ve got to maybe go buy it, I’ve got to get it, I’ve got to maybe enter a password, I go, “What password did I use? What is my user login?”

All these things that can frustrate and stop me. As a user, what I want to do, is click on that book and have it fall open to exactly the page that I want to read. And this is what the IMS Global LTI standard allows you to do. It’s this standard of piecing together different technologies, different applications, and allowing what’s called single sign on to happen. So I click here, it already knows who I am because I’ve logged in as a university or the university has authenticated me and it shares that identity with all the privacy maintained through the different applications.

Immediately transferring that behind the scenes and letting me very smoothly as a user just click and the book opens. And inside that book then is the magic of things like EPUB where I’ve got essentially full websites in a book. Everything you can think about doing with a website, EPUB is simply the best practice for how to take what you do with HTML 5 and stick it in a book, an electronic book.

And so I’ve got interoperability, I’ve got an ability to go in and take questions and answers and have the results come back out of that book and post in my grade book automatically. I’ve got the ability to take my syllabus and put links in the syllabus that I can go out and directly read just that part of the textbook that I need to read for that week. I’ve got the ability to work together in a collaborative environment to share notes and highlights, to share study ideas, to share thoughts and to hear all of this and to learn all of this in a fully accessible environment that gives me magical things like text-to-speech support, like screen reader support, like mathml descriptions of math formulas, interactive videos with annotations that are built in.

All this being aligned around and providing you with this great interoperability as I piece together the solutions that I want to use. The second area is personalization. Personalization, again, remember, means two things. One, having the system adopt to you but secondly, making sure the system also walks you through the learning process and starts where you’re at and guides you to where you need to go.

Now, we have a product that does this. I’m gonna talk about us a little bit. I am from VitalSource. You get to hear a little bit about what we do. But we have a product called Bookshelf and we have a thing called Bookshelf GPS that layers on top of that. And you say, “GPS, that’s for like maps and guiding and getting your way around?” Well it’s the perfect analogy here because when you think about your GPS, when you pull your phone out and you’re using your GPS to get somewhere, what does it do? It’s personalized. It knows where you are at right then. You’ve told it where you want to go and it guides you on the path to get there.

Everybody starts at a different place but everybody’s going to the destination and the goal that they want to get to. That’s the idea behind GPS here. GPS, it lets you personalize and as an instructor I can go in and I can look at my textbook and I can say, “I want to have some study questions. I want to have maybe some fill-in-the-blanks. I want to work with some images and some graphics. Maybe have some flashcard reviews.”

And I’m gonna create these study guides that let the users go through and review and the system then starts personalizing it and says, well, what have you learned? What have you received back? How have you memorized this? The analytics that come back lets you start mapping how you as an individual or in your instructor, how your class, is moving along this learning curve towards the objectives you have set.

Let me give you an example here. Last fall, we did a test of this with the largest dental school, I believe in the world, at least in North America, New York University Dental School. Great school. They’ve got about 400 students in each of the classes moving through the university, and studying to get their dental degrees. High stakes tests.

You have to past the boards to get your degree otherwise you can’t practice when you’re done. So you gotta pass this. We had the anatomy instructor, who’s going through, you gotta learn the basic parts of the anatomy in order to pass this on the boards, worked, created about 200 study sessions, 200 study guides, 200 study elements that they wanted them to make sure they learned, required them in the system to spend at least 15 minutes a day and then turned it loose.

And so the students would spend time going through this. If they started spending more time than they needed to, the system would actually tell them, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down. You don’t need to study anymore today because I’m sensing how much you’ve memorized, how much you’ve learned.

I’m reviewing things you’ve done. I’m bringing stuff back from last week or from last month, or from a few weeks ago that you thought you’d learned then to see if you still know it. I’m reviewing you on new concepts and I’m walking you through this progression here, through these levels or memory, through these levels of learning, to see how well you do.

Out of the class, typically you have a very, it’s a bell curve, you typically have a very high percentage that pass, some who don’t, usually aligns fairly well with the national norm. That was not the case in this scenario where we were able to personalize the data. 100% of the students passed the boards. And not only did they pass the boards, but if you know anything about statistics, they were 2.6 standard deviations higher than the norm. Enormously solid feedback.

Now, it may be a one-off. We’re continuing to do more tests. We’re partnering with a number of other companies. But the idea here is really key in that there are technologies now that let you start taking traditional learning concepts of review and memorization, very low on the pyramid of learning here, very low on the capabilities but that fundamental knowledge that I want to learn and memorize to move on, in high stakes testing and in high stakes environment even, that I can personalize that and keep reviewing where users are at and aligning them and bringing them together towards the goal, just like the GPS does on a map, and bring us all where we need to go.

And the analytics driving behind it to let me see where a user is, to let me see where a class is, to let me see how certain questions are being answered.

If I can come in as a teacher now and look very easily and say, “Well, which questions did they struggle with? And let’s do a quick review here today at the beginning of class and say, let’s review these concepts because I can see that the majority of you are struggling with these questions here and not getting them right.” So you get this great power of changing the model of teaching and enabling new capabilities that are driven by these concepts of personalization and analytics. Now, in the interest of time, I’m gonna move on to why we’re here.

Okay, inaccessibility, instead of driving into more detail here. Accessibility, as I mentioned, rides across all of these. You have to have accessibility by design.

And when I talk about accessibility I’m gonna quote, you may know Alistair McNaught, he’s out of the U.K. Works for the Jisc group in the U.K. He’s got a great blog. I was listening to it fairly recently here and he started talking about defining accessibility and he started talking about some of the traditional ways. If you look at traditional definitions in the U.K., he estimated somewhere between 10 and 13% of the population have what would be considered classical accessibility needs and then he started getting into the elderly, the aged.

He started getting into people who need things like glasses. He started getting into other non-traditional definitions of accessibility and you realize that 40, 50, 60, even higher percentages, need some form, or want some form, or could benefit from some form of what we would consider traditional accessibility. Even things like, just make this font a little larger on my phone, please.

That font is too small to look at. Sometimes that’s all we need. But when looking at learning, Alistair said, “Textbooks in a digital format in theory should widen access to literacy.” This is what was talked about yesterday, getting people to read, getting access to literacy.

In theory, if it’s digital, it should widen that and make any place, any time availability there but that only can be true if the text is itself adaptable enough to be accessible. And the fundamental issue that Alistair points out is one that’s a little controversial, if you think about it.

He talks about it as technology really has given us the capability and given us the needs to drive together to create what he calls ladders or sledgehammers. Now ladders are things that we build to get around problems or to overcome problems.

For example, if we take a look at a typical ladder, in terms of accessibility in the education realm it’s, I mean, it can be as rudimentary as I’m going to a disability services office and I’m having them cut the spine off the book and scan it in because that’s the only way I can get this. It’s just not available any other way. Or we’re converting it to another format or we’re working with the instructors or the publishers to put in things like ALT text tagging or reading order tagging or creating spoken recordings or doing all of these things that Alistair describes that these are ladders to help us get around the barrier that’s there. While these are great, and while these have driven a lot of capabilities, it’s not addressing the fundamental need and learning around accessibility.

And that is we’ve created these systems really that are outside of everything else that we’ve described there because you not only have ladders around the fulfillment and the usage but you’ve got ladders that need to be created around way up stream, when the content is authored. You’ve got ladders that need to be created around way down stream when it’s being fulfilled through the LMS or through the store or how do I get access to this? And we’ve created special versions or special processes that I have to walk through this process to make sure it happens each and every time.

And what we need, according to Alistair is sledgehammers. We need to tear down the wall. We need to go to the source of the issue. And the source of the issue, as he describes it is two-fold. One, if we look at the content. We’ve got all these checklists we’ve got to go through for accessibility and for making sure the content is there. Does this device support it? Does it have the basic features that we need, start, stop, pause, read, all of this? Does the visual adjustment allow us to tune this to what we want? Is the navigation there? Are there advanced features for some of the advanced text?

All these checklists we go through to make sure that this content serves its need but then at the same time as an institution, I need to look at each partner I’m going with and who am I buying this from and who am I dealing with and are they fulfilling the legislative needs? Is it a publisher that has a certain work flow I need to modify?

Are there certain standards I want to adopt here or not adopt or avoid? Do I need to deal with digital skill sets on my campus and how do I educate and train the skill sets on my campus? And what are the vendors doing here? How are they supporting me? All of these things become issues and problems and our philosophy of this is to take the sledgehammer to it. What we need to make sure that we have is a set of applications that work everywhere that the students are, whatever devices that they have, that provide not an alternate path, not an alternate format, not a special version, but mainstreamed access exactly through the same process, through the same application that everyone else has.

And this is what we do with Bookshelf. This is what the industry is moving towards doing in providing a reading system and a learning system everywhere the student is that gives them access that they need. This is demonstrated, you’ll hear a little bit more about this later from Richard. There’s a wonderful test site up here that says, “Hold my feet to the fire.”

Basically. Don’t let me as a vendor just tell you what I think I do, actually test me. Prove that I can do this. And we’re enormously proud of this at VitalSource. We’re the only vendor that gets 100% on the accessibility tests across our product family. Now, you notice that there’s one circle missing here, when I say across our product family. We had one issue on our Mac client, which we have since fixed. Will be updated next month when we release it. So we get 100% across the board there. But we’re proud of that but we’re also saying that this is where we should be. This is what the industry should be doing.

There shouldn’t be special versions of content you get. There shouldn’t be special versions of applications I have to go hunt down and find or special processes. However, any user gets access to content, however any user gets access to learning, however any user gets access to these environments, should be the same for every user. It should just accommodate what their needs are and adapt to those needs and personalize it to where they’re going and where they’re at and where they want to be.

This localization, the adaption all cities that happen for localization. It’s not just about accommodating needs of learning styles. It’s also about accommodating languages. We do this across 37 different languages. We’re continuing to add new capabilities. But it’s an example of how we need to drive through even things that aren’t considered traditional accessibility needs but can be a barrier, can be a wall that we build ladders around. I appreciate being able to talk to you in English today.

You would not want me to try to talk in Swedish. But yet there are times when learning needs to happen in that native language as well so that users can feel at home and can use that in the environments that they want to be. Now, all of this is great in terms of delivering and using the content. Creating the content becomes a whole nother question.

I’m not gonna talk about this because, actually I am, but after lunch. I have another session after lunch where I’ll be talking about creating the content that drives all of this in the first place and we’ll talk about that there but in conclusion, what am I trying to say here? I’m saying the change that’s being described as coming is actually here and starting and we can start to take advantage of this. This next generation environment, this capability of integrating, this capability of personalizing, of getting analytics, of collaborating and doing it all in accessible ways here.

And as users, as institutions, as leaders in the industry, we need to start demanding some things in these environments. Demanding content that’s adaptable, in things like EPUB 3 format, demand integration that’s easy and simple to set up so it makes it usable like LTI, demand personalization for the learner so they can start where they’re at and get to the goal that they need to be at through things like GPS.

And demand that the reading systems that are being used support this and enable this capability. That’s the next generation. That’s what’s here now but that’s also where we’re headed and we need, as a group, we are the leaders of this.

We are together making these decisions and we need to come together and drive the learning process as well to make sure that the perspectives on inclusive publishing aren’t just generic and mass but also focused on the needs of the markets around learners as well.

So, thank you very much and I’d love to answer any questions if the few minutes we have left.

[Margaret] What a great presentation and I have to say, what a great time to be a student. I’m sitting there thinking back to my own time in school and thinking, “Oh my god, long way from the IBM green screens and slide rules and what have you.” Holy mackerel, that’s amazing.

Thank you for that. Good presentation, indeed.

Any questions from the audience? Hard for us to see out here. No? If there isn’t I’ve got one for Rick. [Rick] Okay.

{Margaret] There’s a lot of information here. – It is. – There’s a lot of librarians in the room. If there’s one thing you want them to take away from this session, what is it? {Rick] The one thing I would challenge everyone in this room, whether you’re a librarian, you’re a user, you’re an administrator or your just an advocate, is it’s the concept of the ladders and the sledgehammer again. Don’t accept what we’ve always done as the only way we can do it. We can do better. We can make systems that work better and we can attack things at the root where the fundamental issue is and improve it there rather than building ladders to get around it.

– Good point. Let me give you a small token of our appreciation. There you go, Rick.