Blog Date: 
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Amy Mason

Apple’s iOS devices are being adopted in schools and educational institutions throughout the United States, and are being used by students and teachers to fill a number of educational roles.  In answer to this market trend, Apple has made changes to the iBooks application to improve its functionality as a textbook reader capable of providing rich content, such as slideshows, videos, audio, and other media on the iPad.  It has also created iBooks compatible content creation software.  In the past, iBooks has been one of the go to applications for showcasing how well Access Technology and eBook systems can integrate. Blind users have been fairly pleased with iBooks, and we hoped to see good things when Apple announced the inclusion of textbooks in iBooks 2.   Unfortunately, iBooks and the textbooks available for it at this time are likely to create some new and troubling accessibility barriers for VoiceOver users.  

iBooks 2 has several functions which allow students to annotate their books, but this process is not nearly as simple or as useful for blind users as it is for sighted users. It is possible, though often tricky, to select text with VoiceOver, which can then be highlighted, but after text is highlighted, there is no indication of this in the text itself.  It can be accessed via the notes button at the top of the screen, but then it is devoid of context.  Furthermore, it is possible to leave margin notes on virtual “sticky notes” next to highlighted material, but there is also no indication of their existence if a user is reading continuously, and if a user looks in the notes section, as they would to read their highlights, the text of the notes is onscreen, but not available to VoiceOver.  A user can flick to a “margin note” and open it, but they will not have the context that note is related to.  They will not see the highlighted text associated with the note delineated in any meaningful way. 

Navigation of textbook content is further hampered by a lack of proper heading markup in all of the sample textbooks which were tested.  It is unclear if it is possible to note whether text is a heading or not in Apple’s textbook format because none of the four textbooks tested included the ability to navigate by heading despite visually appearing as headings, and even in some cases being linked to in the book’s table of contents. 

The flicking gesture is inconsistent in textbooks on iBooks 2.  When a user “flicks” from the left to the right, or the right to the left, they will usually move from one bit of content to another in a predictable fashion, but not always.  Sometimes flicking from right to left will move to a different element on the page than it should if it is the reverse of the order in place for flicking from left to right.  At other times, it is possible, depending on where on the page a user starts, or the page’s orientation, (landscape or portrait) to skip over parts of the content entirely without even knowing it was there.  Another concern related to the navigation of the books themselves comes in the form of making a blind user aware of interactive content on a page.  For example, when a book is in portrait mode, and the user chooses to read continuously, the text will be read without any indication of illustrations, videos, charts, or other interactive content.  If a user “flicks” through the content, they will often run across elements that do not announce what they are, and which only become apparent after they are double tapped.  When flicking is being erratic, these elements can be overlooked entirely as well.  Beyond these concerns, there are several other troubling trends in the way the textbooks themselves are being rendered for publication.  Below, specific examples of text will be discussed with the problems that were found in each. 

Although this first is not a textbook, it showcases a number of interactive features, and the problems, as well as the positives of accessing this book, may be instructive.  The book we tested with is Twas the Night Before Christmas, and it is published by Once Upon an App.  It is a free title and is a minimally animated storybook of the poem in question.  On the left side of the page, there is a static picture, and on the right, the user will see the text of the book.  Overlaying all of this are animated snowflakes.  Because of the way the snowflakes are animated, they constantly cause page refreshes which confuse VoiceOver and cause it to break into what it is reading and state over and over, “page loaded”.  This does not make it impossible to read the book, but much of its flow, and the pleasure of reading, it is lost.  The other feature that makes this book unique, and which does actually work well with VoiceOver, is the inclusion of human narration and highlighting the text to match the narration.  Once this feature is turned on, the book will read aloud, and automatically turn the pages, and because it is controlled by a standard Apple control set embedded in iBooks, it works very well.  If a user were to temporarily disable the VoiceOver voice to avoid the constant reminder of the “page reloads” they would be able to enjoy the human-narrated version of the story.  This book is an example of where a simple fix could make all the difference, because if animation could be disabled, or if the snowflakes were created to be explicitly ignored by VoiceOver, the rest of the book works fine, interactive content and all.

Free samples of four textbooks were downloaded to get a feel for how academic books and interactive texts would behave in iBooks.    The books chosen were Chemistry (Chem) by Thandi Buthelezi, Laurel Dingrando, Nicholas Hainen and Chereyl Winstrom; E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth (LoE) by Gael McGill, Edward O. Wilson and Morgan Ryan;  Environmental Science (ES) by Jay Withgott, and Geometry  (Geo) by John A. Carter, Ph.D., Gilbert J. Cuevas, Ph.D., Roger Day, Ph.D., NBCT, Carol Malloy, Ph.D. and Jerry Cummins.  Geometry and Chemistry are published by McGraw Hill, Environmental Science is published by Pearson, and E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth is published by Wilson Digital.  These books all showcase the potential of interactive textbooks in the classroom, but they also each provide barriers to access for blind students.  Since many of the issues overlap, there will be notation of which books exhibit each issue with parenthetical notes.

• Mathematical Equations Represented as Images (Geo) - All of the mathematical equations in the book, and not just the images of the triangles in the sample chapter, were represented as images.  If the book is read continuously, the text skips over the images as if they are not there.  Furthermore, these images are unlabeled, so there is no useful information to be gained from the images.

• Slideshows and other “Interactive Features” that cannot be interacted with via VoiceOver (All)- interactive charts and maps, slide shows, virtual tours, and keynote presentations which cannot be interacted with via VoiceOver in any way, and make the “no content” sound.  Examples include a slideshow about cell crowding from LoE, the Comparison of Fresh and Salt Water in ES, and an animation of the creation of ozone (Chem).

• Videos without descriptive text (LoE) – A video showing cell-division without any sound or description of the process.

• Unlabeled graphics (ES) - Most pictures and other interactive maps and elements are simply tagged with a number, such as “image 27636.jpg”.

• Quiz Modules with image dependent questions (Chem) - Quiz modules are included in the books to allow students to review material they have learned in the textbook, and they are very impressively well-integrated with VoiceOver.  A student can flick through the questions, and the multiple choice answers, and double tap to choose the answer they wish.  At the bottom of the screen the student can double tap a “check answer button” which allows VoiceOver to announce if the answer is correct or incorrect.  If correct, the student can flick to the next button and go on.  It works almost flawlessly.  In fact, the only problem encountered during testing was that a blind student could not answer questions based on visual charts that had no textual representation, as was encountered in one of the quiz modules in the Chemistry book.

Not all news concerning the iBooks textbook scene is bad news.  Students do already have at least the same level of flexibility as they would have reading a scanned copy of a normal print book.  They are able to search the text of the book, and use the interactive features for the search. They can also pull up more information from the web or Wikipedia, directly from the search box at the top of the screen.  Furthermore, so long as the questions do not contain inaccessible content, the quiz modules are well-implemented and could be a great benefit to students.  Finally, video controls are, unsurprisingly, very accessible, and work as they should since they are the same control set implemented by Apple for watching all other video content through Apple created Apps, like YouTube and Safari.

Textbooks on iBooks are momentous because they represent one of the most impressive and well-designed electronic textbook implementations that educators will have seen to date, and they will likely be excited to adopt iBooks as the delivery model of choice.  Beyond this, they are already somewhat accessible, which is good news for print-disabled readers.    If Apple and its partners can come together with users of access technology to ensure that these books are accessible to all students, it could bring about an exciting increase in immediate access for all print-disabled learners.