Blog Date: 
Friday, March 14, 2014
Clara Van Gerven

Math in Desire2Learn

Having math in an accessible format can be tricky, making it hard to interpret the math when students can’t even be sure that they’re getting the right message. The old way of dealing with mathematical equations was to create an image of the equation. Of course, this meant it was up to the instructor to create meaningful, unambiguous alt text for each equation. I think we all know that everybody’s idea of good alt text varies wildly, and we definitely all know how unforgiving math is about interpretations of equations. There is only one right answer.

Then along came MathML, a markup language for math. This would allow equations to be actually written out, not just placed in images. Next up came MathPlayer from Design Science, an Internet Explorer plugin which would turn that MathML into something clear and discernable for people using screen readers. Students could now move through an equation in a logical step by step fashion and always know where sections of the equation began and ended.

It looked like the solution was here, but the trouble is that it’s a rare person who would actually write directly in MathML.

Our equation editor solves this problem. An instructor can write their math using a visual editor, or LaTeX, or MathML, and the output is always MathML. This allows MathPlayer to work its magic, and everyone to see the same equation in the same way!

So what does a student have to do to take advantage of this? Simply download the MathPlayer plug in from Design Science, and view math using Internet Explorer. The rest will take care of itself. The only caveat is that MathPlayer only works with Internet Explorer 9 and below. Hopefully there will be a newer solution available soon.

What does the instructor have to do? If they intend to write math, they need to use the equation editor. It is possible to make regular HTML visually look like math, but screen readers aren’t tricked so easily. If the equation is to benefit from the semantics of MathML, it has to be written in the equation editor.

Another thing an instructor can do is be mindful of the number of mathematical equations placed on a page. Since there is a lot of processing going on between the screen reader and MathPlayer, having an extremely high number of equations can cause the screen reader to slow down and lag behind. This doesn’t become a problem until there are upwards of eighty equations on a single page. Where this might become problematic faster is in a multiple choice quiz with twenty questions, all of whose choices are mathematical expressions. If an instructor plans to have a high number of equations on a page, they might want to create a version that breaks the content up onto a couple of pages, or has less quiz questions per page if you know you have a student using a screen reader consuming the content.

Accessible math is a tricky problem to solve. Our equation editor makes it that little bit easier to make math accessible without a lot of extra effort.