Office Hours Recap & Video: Accessibility in Open Textbooks

Are you a professor, librarian, or staff member looking for ways to prioritize accessibility in OER? This month’s Office Hours session on best practices for accessibility in open textbooks will help you do just that! Watch the video recording, or read a recap.


Accessibility in Open Textbooks was the subject of this month’s Office Hours, organized by Rebus Community and the Open Textbook Network.

Watch the video, or read a recap of this session below.

Hugh McGuire of Rebus Community introduced the guest speakers, who included Josie Gray, BCcampus; Krista Greear, University of Washington; Jess Mitchell, OCAD University; and Michelle Reed, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. Each speaker presented a five-minute perspective on accessibility that included how they make open content accessible at their institution.

Josie Gray is an Open Textbook accessibility editor with BCcampus. She performs post-publication edits to open textbooks to ensure the content conforms to Web accessibility guidelines. Josie uses a screen reader, which uses markup of a web page to make things accessible to non-sighted users, to test the accessibility of the textbooks. She stresses that fluency in HTML is not needed to make open content accessible, especially in Pressbooks. She mentioned some accessibility best practices for markup, including adding link text, using table headers, adding captions and alt tags for images, and including long descriptions for images that would need this detail to understand if you weren’t able to see them. Josie advised authors to avoid conveying information through colour. She suggested BCcampus’ Accessibility Toolkit as a good starting point for those new to thinking about basic best practices to implement for accessibility.

Jess Mitchell, senior manager of research and design at IDRC, OCAD University, said there are a number of ways to make content accessible, including the best practices Josie mentioned. Jess pushed participants to go beyond checklists, and also think about the ecosystem that is required to make a piece of content accessible. “We want to start to think about pedagogically, how do you think about presenting materials in a way that can make them accessible.” She also talked about creating not just accessible materials, but accessible materials that “create an opportunity of discovery for the learner.”

Michelle Reed is an open education librarian from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. She encouraged attendees to think of ways to prioritize accessibility in their institutions. Michelle said she aspires to limit or eliminate the need for commercial textbook remediation by making high-quality OER alternatives that are innately accessible. She mentioned that the use of materials remediated to be accessible is limited to students with a registered disability, when in fact making content more accessible and multi-modal could benefit all students.

Krista Greear is the assistant director for disability resources for students at the University of Washington. She has been working to make course materials accessible for the past five years. Krista works mainly with the remediation side of things, and manages a unit that provides closed captioning for course videos and other support for students with disabilities. “Accessibility is really giving students with disabilities the same right to succeed or fail as any other student,” she said. She talked about creating materials or retrofitting materials to be device agnostic, ability agnostic, and access to technology agnostic–or at least materials that can be easily turned into something that is readily usable by anyone. Krista reminded us about the various contexts in which students might use open textbooks, such as reading a textbook on the bus, or on a mobile device, and how these environments should be taken into consideration during their production. She said she believes the line between video and document content formats will blur further as textbooks become more interactive. Krista also advocated for accessibility practitioners to work alongside faculty and content creators in order to make accessibility possible as materials are created, not after the fact.

Karen Lauritsen of the Open Textbook Network mentioned that OTN had accessibility resources available in the recently released Authoring Open Textbooks Guide.

Hugh invited participants to join the Rebus Community Working Group on Accessibility to collectively build both checklists for accessibility and ways to integrate best practices into the authoring process.

Participants wanted to know whether speakers had a sample intake form with accessibility questions that professors/instructional designers could use when authoring an open textbook–something that would help authors think about accessibility considerations as they create content. Karen shared the intake form from the Authoring Guide, but cautioned that it may need revising for individual circumstances.

Participants talked about accessibility and interactive STEM content, especially for translating interactive visual models from an HTML5 canvas to a tactile learning experience. Jess pointed towards PhET, and Krista suggested the ITACCESS group and the ATHEN listserv as additional resources. Other questions were about accessible design in Google Docs – Grackle came up as a popular resource – and the community response to efforts to make OERs accessible. Our special guests agreed unanimously that response was positive, while they mentioned that convincing professors to devote time to remediating documents or recruiting volunteers was challenging.

Hugh inquired how much time our guests spent remediating textbooks. Michelle ran some numbers, and found that from April 1 to date, she and her students had spent 1,800 hours remediating 109 textbooks and 100 hours captioning videos. She said that it takes them 100 pages/hr to remediate non-STEM materials, while it takes 10 pages/hr to remediate STEM content. Michelle also stressed that due to copyright and funding restrictions, their work is not shareable with other universities. (So if another student needs the same textbook remediated, their institution would have to start from scratch, a key reason why she said accessibility should be built into textbooks from the get-go.)

The Rebus Working Group will continue the conversation around accessibility. Front of mind will be ways to make open textbooks accessible in the creation process and educate authors/faculty and institutions about why this matters. Interested in taking part? Join the Working Group on Accessibility.

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