Before I begin, I want to make it clear that what you are about to read is not meant to be a criticism but rather a call to help me, and likely others, understand more about what is apparently a confusing topic.
Recently, the Open Educational Resources movement has picked up a head of steam with the announcement of the Open eBooks initiative championed by Michelle Obama and The White House. At the forefront of this initiative was the launch of a new Open eBooks app. Like so many, I was initially excited. Open sourced materials have the potential for providing greater and more varied learning opportunities to everyone including people with disabilities, so what was not to be excited about?
Many of the people in my extended network of educators (Marvin Williams, Mike Marotta, Jamie Martin, etc.) working for and with people with disabilities began exploring the app for its accessibility features, including myself. The results were concerning as many discovered that the registration process to utilize the app was cumbersome and a barrier in itself, requiring educators to input demographic data that isn’t necessarily readily accessible to them. Once past the registration process, some necessary features were not universally available on every book within the app. Features such as text to speech, text to speech with dual highlighting, and image descriptions were simply not present ubiquitously.
These findings spurred an outcry (encapsulated in this blog post by June Behrmann), which, I think, led to the accessibility features of the Open eBooks app to be a topic of #ATchat on March 2nd. Andrew Marcinek, the Open Education Advisor to the Office of Educational Technology was an active participant in the chat and addressed the concerns.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
But, here are the questions that have been plaguing me. Why does another app need to exist in the first place? Could open educational resources be created, organized, and shared in such a way that are device agnostic? Or, to put it simply, could open educational resources be made available in such a way that the user chooses which application he or she wants to use to experience the content? Could the government, rather than backing an additional app with a limited library of materials, support a structure where a user could search the entirety of open educational resources and then, select and open a file using whatever tool they want?
Currently, a person might need to maintain multiple apps to get to a specific piece of content. Each app has its own UI experience and accessibility features. Users need to maintain all of these apps, navigate the differing UI experiences, and mitigate varied features of the different apps, which makes for a giant ball of confusion.
A typical user experience might be as follows:
“Hmmm…where can I find this title? Let me check this app. Nope, that title is not there. Now let me check this other app. Nope, that title is not here either. Now, let me check yet another app! Huzzah, the title is here but this app isn’t an app that has the accessibility feature I need (or even prefer).”
If I’m a user who already has trouble reading and possibly has executive functioning difficulties, adding yet another library for me to check likely adds a barrier rather than knocks one down.
Instead of asking users to search multiple libraries individually could the government help provide one central place where all users go to get the content in the format they choose? Instead of backing yet another new app, could the money be spent building a tool which ties all the existing open educational resources together to make them searchable?
TRANSPORTATION AS A MODEL
Consider how the government works to facilitate transportation in the US. As part of the nation’s infrastructure, the government contracts out the companies to build roads. The government doesn’t contract out to companies to build cars that go on these roads. The government provides regulations for the construction of the cars but doesn’t manufacture them.
Could the same model be applied to open educational resources? Like the building of roads, the government could contract out to a company to build a searchable structure tying all open education resources together. When a user is looking for a resource, they could just go to this one place. The user could search the database and results could come back with all the file formats available. The user could then select the file format to open in the app of her or his choice (Open in…). To ensure accessibility and compatibility, the government could provide regulations about the criteria necessary for that file to be found in the search, just like what currently exists for the creation of automobiles regarding safety and environmental regulations. “If you’re going to sell a car in the US, it needs to meet these safety and environmental parameters. If you’re going to share a resource in the National (Open) Educational Resource Database (NERD, for short! Yes! How great is that?!?!) it needs to meet these accessibility standards.”
I fear the time, effort, and money spent creating the Open eBooks app was like building a car when what was really needed was a road. As a driver, I want to be able to choose my car knowing no matter which I choose, I’m ensured some base level of safety. As a reader, I want to be able to choose my reading application, knowing no matter which I choose, I’m ensured some base level of accessibility. I shouldn’t need to have multiple cars in order to get to where I want to go just like I shouldn’t need to have multiple eBook applications in order to read the materials from which I want to learn.
All that written, I could be completely backward on this. I’m open to the idea that I’m completely and utterly wrong, which is why I started this post asking for a call to further my understanding. Please comment below to further the conversation!