Q & A: Global Literacy @ Benetech – Part 2

By Benetech, posted on

For the first installment of our Q & A series, we sat down with Betsy Beaumon, the VP and General Manager of Benetech’s Global Literacy Program, to discuss the program’s current initiatives, key success factors and future work.

In Part 2, Betsy discusses the landmark opportunity for materials that are born digital to be “born accessible” and the future of accessible materials. You can read Part 1 of the Q & A here.

Q: When you discuss the future of accessibility and the Global Literacy Program’s work, you often say that your vision is based on the premise that “all content that is born digital should be born accessible.” Could you explain what that means and why is it important?

A: We’re now at a momentous point where sea changes in consumer technology and tectonic shifts in publishing methods are remaking the content landscape. One major change is that the world has finally moved beyond creating and distributing books solely as ordinary print books. There is a completely new process, from start to finish, for digital eBooks. In the education field in particular, the days of traditional print textbooks as primary educational materials are numbered. This means that there is a possibility for digital materials that have accessibility built-in. Put another way, there really is no longer an excuse for inaccessible materials: all content that’s born digital can and should be made and sold as accessible from the outset.

The importance is that this shift opens up an incredible opportunity to permanently improve the content landscape for people with print disabilities and learning differences. Now is the time to ensure that accessibility of the written word is no longer a challenge and that all digitally produced content is instantly usable by everyone. Benetech is, of course, seizing this opportunity and working with our partners to make accessibility an affordable reality, for all of humanity!

Q: What are some of the things you do to advance this vision?

A: As opposed to simply transforming materials into accessible versions after the fact, we have begun to work upstream in the publishing process, developing best practices and tools that content creators can use themselves to incorporate accessibility into the content creation cycle. As opposed to just telling publishers and technology developers to do this, we’re helping them understand how to implement this change. That’s what we do through our DIAGRAM initiative around images and graphics: working on international accessibility standards; offering practical tips for publishers for aligning accessibility with mainstream digital file formats; and providing open source tools that make it easy to create accessible content. In 2012, for example, we launched Poet, an open source tool that allows any content creator to describe images for those who can’t see or perceive them. The need for such tools is pressing, as more and more materials are becoming increasingly graphical. We’re especially pushing for improving accessibility of graphics in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) textbooks that contain hundreds of critical images. Beyond the charts and graphs, we are tackling the inaccessibility of math equations, which are represented today almost entirely as images, rendering them useless to all who need to access them through audio or braille.

Q: If Benetech achieves the goal of making everything that’s born digital born accessible, what does that mean for Bookshare? Will it be still needed?

A: We look to the day when publishers and education technology providers incorporate accessibility into their materials from the outset, as a seamless part of the content creation process, so that mainstream digital book and online learning content are accessible from inception. The need to convert materials into accessible equivalents will become obsolete for all newly created materials. Bookshare will still be needed, but it will take a different, more traditional library role. Bear in mind that a library isn’t typically the primary source of books, but that’s what Bookshare is today for multitudes of people. In the future, once we’ve solved the inaccessibility of the printed word, graphics and math, Bookshare will assume the more traditional role of a library: as a social safety net that provides books and information for specialized interests or for people who cannot afford to purchase books and related items. In addition, these new digital content trends will roll out more slowly in the developing world, where there are millions of people with print disabilities who could benefit from Bookshare for years to come.

Also, the work of Benetech’s Global Literacy program is far from being done. We have just begun to harness the power of technology to overcome disparities in literacy between rich and poor communities across the world; to ensure that all students are well served by the educational system; to teach reading to people with developmental disabilities, and so much more. Our Global Literacy program will be on the forefront of addressing these and other challenges that emerge over the coming years.

Q: Benetech is exploring and discussing different ways that “Big Data” could be used to create positive social change. What promise do you see in how “Big Data” might be used to advance the work being done by the Global Literacy Program? 

A: The promise I see is in dramatically improving teaching methods for and learning by students with print disabilities, as well as many others with learning differences. Thus far, most educational research studies in this population of students have been limited to very small numbers of participants and therefore based on insufficient data. However, as more and more educational activities take place online, whether through eBooks, interactive games or simulations, we now have the ability to begin to track and comprehend how students with learning differences interact with their educational materials and how digital learning environments can be designed to maximize educational outcomes.

Bookshare is a leading digital learning resource that’s uniquely positioned to leverage the power of this kind of “Big Data” or Learning Analytics to give educational researchers an unparalleled level of insight into the learning patterns of students with learning differences. We now serve a quarter million students with print disabilities such as blindness and severe dyslexia in all fifty states. Last year, we processed requests for more than 1.3 million downloads of accessible books to our student members. Over the next few years, we’ll be able to collect (ethically and legally with proper respect for privacy) and analyze the many millions of interactions our users are having with the books they download.

We have the opportunity to use data to ask more informed questions about and gain insight into the learning process. Just like data has been used in the for-profit space to understand why online shoppers abandon their shopping carts without completing their purchase, we could use the same techniques to understand exactly where students are struggling and determine how we can better help them before they fail and abandon learning. With this fine grained approach to educational research, we’ll be able to take the first step towards designing an adaptive learning environment that can match students to learning strategies based on their unique learning profiles. And we believe that what we learn with our student population will lay the groundwork for millions more.

Our Route 66 Literacy tool provides another excellent basis for an adaptive learning environment for an even lower incidence population—adolescents and young adults with developmental disabilities. Today, for example, Route 66 shows a tutor how to respond when a student gives the wrong answer to a question. In the future, based on Big Data insights, this type of tool could optimize the learning process for these learners, as well as others, and guide users through complete learning pathways tailored to their specific needs.