Saturday, September 24, 2011

Accessibility is about more than text-to-speech

I am, as I type this, on my way home from the School Library Journal Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. It was, hands down, one of the best professional development experiences I’ve ever had. I loved the intimacy and the intensity of the summit—it was a small group of people, and we were all in the same room, listening to the same speakers, and discussing the same ideas. It created an atmosphere very different from the large conferences I usually go to, where I’m running from session to session and always feel like I’m missing something—and have a harder time connecting with people who are focusing on similar ideas while at the conference and want to delve a little deeper.

The summit was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries and give me new ideas and focus. I’m coming home with a lot of ideas to reflect on and implement (and unless I get completely overwhelmed at work the next couple weeks—ha!—I plan to write some more about it).

The theme of the summit was “The New World of Reading” and e-books, unsurprisingly, came up a lot. Friday morning was devoted specifically to speakers who had started e-book projects in their schools, districts, counties, regions, etc., as well as e-book vendors talking about the issue from their perspective.

It was kind of reassuring to hear that even many people who have started using e-books in their schools are still not necessarily 100% sure of the best way to do so; I admire their willingness to explore and jump in and see what happens. It was also reassuring to hear from Chris Harris, who admonished us not to buy e-books for our schools; specifically, he told us to develop ways across districts and curriculums to collectively purchase and share e-resources. Which I agree with, as I don’t have the buying power or the clout to purchase what I want and need on my own, but as an independent school librarian it also means spending time figuring out a consortium (though I’ve already connected with another independent school librarian in CT, and we have some ideas).

One of my major hesitations around e-books (and it was an issue I brought up as often as I could) is full accessibility for students with learning disabilities. One of the questions I submitted to the vendor panel was if e-books were being designed and created with LD students/UDL* principles in mind, and whether they would be fully accessible. The answer from most vendors was that many (but not all) e-books had text-to-speech built in; there was much nodding and smiling from the audience in response.


Yes, text-to-speech is good, and an important accessibility feature, but text-to-speech alone does not make a book fully accessible to all learners. For example, in many platforms where I’ve seen text-to-speech built in, it’s one giant mp3 file, with no navigational ability. How often do you read a book or article (particularly for research purposes) starting with title and author and then read the whole thing straight through without skipping or skimming?

But beyond the quality of text-to-speech, it takes more to make a curricular resource truly universally designed. It also takes more than a built-in dictionary. Yes, those are good things, and I’m glad they’re becoming standard, but I really don’t want them to be the end of these developments. I see so much potential for making more resources more available to more learners that I will be frustrated if we fall short of what I believe is possible.

A truly UDL e-book is like art or porn; I may not know exactly how to define it, but I’ll know it when I see it. And I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe there is something out there that does what I want it to do, and I just haven’t discovered it; if so, I hope someone will point it out to me. Even something close, so I can go to a vendor (my goal is to get better at talking to vendors about what accessible e-resources should look like) with specific suggestions. And, as mentioned above, I know my school and the population I work with in general is too small to have a lot of clout, but if a vendor designs a truly UDL e-resource they will have my undying loyalty and a solemn promise to sing their praises at every opportunity.


* For those of you unfamiliar with UDL: I like to think of Universal Design for Learning as the cognitive cousin of Universal Design in architecture. The most frequently used example of universal design in architecture is curb cuts; they make sidewalks for accessible for people using wheelchairs, but they also help people dragging suitcases on wheels, or pushing strollers. The burden is placed on the space to meet the needs of those who will use, not on those using the space to adapt themselves to it. Similarly, UDL is based on the idea that it is the curriculum that should adapt to the learners, not the other way around. For a much better, much more thorough explanation (plus UDL guidelines), I highly recommend

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An open letter to academic librarians

Right around this time of year is when I start getting messages from last year's seniors. Each one is a little bit different, but in many many ways they all say the same thing: "I'm in college, and I'm doing research, and I need help." And the subtext is, always, "And I'm too scared to ask the librarians here, so can you help me?"

I'm not writing you to ask you to help my students; I know you will help my students. And that's what I tell them every time--that the best way I can help them is to direct them to all of you so you can show them all the resources (far beyond what I was able to show them) you have available.

But I have to admit, I am nervous, too. I am worried that you will judge my students for what I failed to teach them.

I did my best, I really did. But so many of my students come to me having been--for lack of a better term--abused by the educational system. They have been made to believe that they are stupid, that a failure is a reflection on them as people, not on the inherently messy process of learning. Many of them did not think college was in their future.

We did everything we could to teach them about who they are as learners, to give them the skills they need to engage with new material, to inquire, to understand both their strengths and their weaknesses, and to engage with the world while understanding that what matters is not the mistakes you make, but how you respond to them.

There is a lot they don't know about the nuts and bolts of research, but that is my fault, not theirs. Please do not hold them responsible for my shortcomings. I wanted them to see libraries as welcoming places, and librarians as welcoming people. I knew that I could never teach them everything they needed to know, so my hope was to foster the attitudes necessary to continue learning long after they left.

I know I am putting them in good hands. I know you will help them. And I thank you for teaching them the things I didn't.