Susan Winslow. Image: Macmillan Learning
By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Ways We Can Convey Information’
Announcing today (April 15) that it is the first education company to be accredited by Benetech as “Global Certified Accessible,” Macmillan Learning has been granted a designation that means its content—starting with its 2019 list—is “born accessible.”
Books called “born accessible” are developed to make it possible for students of any ability to have equal access to information. In its messaging to the media, Macmillan’s team says that this has become increasingly important for students and instructors at a time when more than one of 10 college students has a disability.
The Benetech team works with a publisher to evaluate whether the house’s ebooks are designed to be accessible for learners with reading barriers such as blindness, low vision, dyslexia, or a physical disability.
Benetech is based in Palo Alto, California and is a not-for-profit company engaged in what it calls “software for social good.” Its ventures, for example, include Bookshare, an international ebook library for people with reading barriers.
Macmillan Learning, a Holtzbrinck company, is one of the leading US publishers of content for high school and college educational needs. In close to 25 course areas, the company is led by CEO Ken Michaels, and its general manager for academic business is Susan Winslow.
In a conversation with , Winslow tells us that the company now will be producing all its ebook material as “born accessible.”
“At Macmillan Learning,” Winslow says, “we say we want ‘to change lives through learning.’” And in recent years, she says, the company had been realizing that many lives—those of students with disabilities—might not be so readily changed if content wasn’t accessible.
The Benetech program of accreditation is described as a two-stage process. In the first part, the program looks at a publisher’s workflow—to get the production of content aligned with accessibility standards. In the second part, Benetech gives the publisher a subscription of sorts, a renewable license verifying its content’s accessibility and making periodic checks for quality assurance.
Winslow says that from her standpoint as publisher, the initial work was a matter of making adjustments that were “almost—I hesitate to say ‘easy’—but as long as they joined the normal process” of preparing a title’s publication, “they were relatively easy to do.”
For example, in “a distillation of running notes, we started with figures, creating verbal representations of what was in various figures. So now a student who might be visually impaired and may not be able to look at a graph” and make out what numeric information meant, “now could have a voice read-over” so that the information in the graph could be understood by that reader.
Winslow is so impressed, she says, with how many more students might be able to benefit from content that’s assessed and adjusted in such ways that she says that Macmillan Learning and Benetech have continued to refine their shared understanding of what might be possible in helping students with disabilities—”ways we can convey information that you find on a printed page, if you couldn’t see it or read it.” Similarly, in audio, the company has looked at ways to enhance delivery beyond old-fashioned auto-reader effects.
“Another thing we looked at,” she says, “was the question of pacing for different kinds of students, the length of time needed by, say, spectrum students” with spectrum autism conditions “or those who can be overwhelmed easily. It’s a matter of looking for a reasonable pacing going forward, and that’s something interesting to us right now.”
Winslow describes the process of working with Benetech as collaborative, a study of the deep curriculum holdings of the company, gauging its content across various disciplines.
“And now we’re systematically looking at backlist,” she says. “There’s a couple of things that go into that factor—large student usage” and a readiness for revision. In other words, content that’s being used a lot by students and/or is closer than not to being revised might be given priority over other content for being brought up to the standard of the new certification.
‘Every Student Will Be Able To Read and Learn’
In a statement from the company, we read something that will remind many in publishing of one of the ebook format’s intrinsic values: its framework allows for digitized services and capabilities that print simply cannot accomplish.
“We, Benetech, and VitalSource were assembling teams and reviewing, looking at the process, and then developing technologies that addressed issues we saw.”Susan Winslow
“To become Global Certified Accessible,” reads a company statement provided to , “Benetech evaluated Macmillan Learning’s workflow for creating accessible books, as well as many samples of content across the disciplines they publish in, and certified conformance to the accessible EPUB creation guidelines, which are based on WCAG 2.0 AA+ standards put into place by the international standards organizations and the publishing community.
“Using a collaborative process, Benetech evaluated and provided feedback on more than a hundred accessibility features. The certification applies to all books created using Macmillan Learning’s updated process, which includes all ebooks with a 2019 copyright.”
Commercially, you can hear in a statement provided by Brad Turner, vice-president and general manager for global education and literacy at Benetech. one of the sales advantages that Macmillan Learning may well have created for itself in leading the way with Global Certified Accessible accreditation.
“As teachers, school districts, and post-secondary institutions select course materials,” Turner says, “they need to know that the ebooks they choose will be accessible for all students. Now that Macmillan Learning is a Global Certified Accessible publisher, schools can select Macmillan’s certified materials, knowing that every student will be able to read and learn from the textbook in a way that works for them [and] laying the foundation for a classroom that’s inclusive of all learners.”
And while Macmillan Learning’s certified materials will be available through its regular channel partners, a new retail store is being hosted by VitalSource. That, Macmillan Learning says, includes a catalogue of more than 200 titles from its backlist which, while not “born accessible,” do include detailed accessibility information on the VitalSource platform through that company’s own “accessibility badging initiative.”
In a prepared statement, VitalSource’s vice-president of product strategy, Rick Johnson, is quoted, praising Macmillan Learning for providing “accessibility support and transparency in their content. Our … efforts with transparency showcase the accessibility features they’ve included in their content and will help all learners understand how that content can best support their individual needs.”
Macmillan Learning’s efforts in accessibility, like those of many other companies, in the past have involved instructor and student resources such as lecture slides, quizzes, PDFs, and so forth. Macmillan has offered ebooks at no additional cost to disability services for qualified instructors and students with disabilities and for instructors supporting students with disabilities.
From ‘Reading Experience’ to ‘Activity and Engagement’
As Winslow tells us, some of the most compelling work in this new field of approach with Benetech may still lie ahead.
“If people can take advantage of this and then we really get to what is a meaningful experience for the student, then we’re down to the sweet spot.”Susan Winslow
She makes a distinction between the “reading experience”—which is where the new work of the accreditation is focused for now—and what may be next in terms of developing ways of approaching “activity and engagement.” By this, she’s referring to interactive programs for the classroom. This is a broader dimension of development, of course, because it needs to take into account how students with disabilities may need to receive prompts and signal responses.
Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for even pressing onward in that direction is clear in her voice as she talks of holding hackathons in which developers are asked to work on some of the challenges involved.
And when asked the important question of whether she and Macmillan Learning have found the cost to be high in bringing the company’s new content into compliance for Benetech’s accreditation, Winslow says, “The investment of time and people” in this effort “is made in looking at the problem. We, Benetech, and VitalSource were assembling teams and reviewing, looking at the process, and then developing technologies that addressed issues we saw.
“Once that’s done, comparative costs—especially as people became a part of the development process writ large. I think the costs will come down significantly, certainly around the reading issue.
“Where you hear people say, ‘Oh, it costs so much to remedy,’” is in those activity and engagement elements, thinking of how to service those engagements across many kinds of platforms. We work with another company called Tech For All, and we have weekly meetings with them. And some of the stuff we’ve done with them is around brainstorming how to solve” such challenges as are encountered in developing a fully operative classroom experience in activity and engagement for all students.
“And then we help fund the technology to get [such solutions] created so it can be distributed. The idea being that this is good for everybody. It allows everybody to advance through learning and it benefits the whole industry.
“We want everybody involved. If people can take advantage of this and then we really get to what is a meaningful experience for the student, then we’re down to the sweet spot.”