Textbook pain

My son is visually impaired. It doesn’t slow him down all that much, but it does make school more difficult than it would be for him if he had better vision. Several years ago we got him an iPad so he’d be able to read – it’s been amazing for him. The iPad has become my son’s notepad, eBook reader, and word processor. The ability to pinch-zoom on just about anything really is magical (yes, geeks growled at Steve Jobs when he referred to the iPad with that description, but it is amazing). This year he’s even able to scan workbook pages with an app and import them into Notability to edit (that is, when he’s not feeling too self-conscious).

The only place the iPad hasn’t been helpful is with textbooks. School textbooks layouts take visual stimuli, inject with with crack, and vomit it on to a page. I am a visual learner (as is my son), but school textbooks break up the data so much it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s important if you’re a fully sighted person. If you have difficulty seeing, it’s a nightmare. Particularly when a reading curriculum depends on “open book” tests.

Unfortunately, textbook publishers have been slow to take up digital publishing. Even when they have jumped into these waters, it’s been done tentatively. Rather than make actual eBook versions of their textbooks, publishes have opted for web-versions which are identical to the printed page. This would be a minor annoyance which could be overcome with pinch-zoom and dragging but for one huge flaw in the implementation – the online versions of the books depend on flash. Not only does this make them inaccessible on the iPad without a third party browser like Puffin, it removes the very accessibility features which make the iPad such a valuable tool in the first place. Imagine our frustration! Imagine my son’s! Sadly, Reading has sapped the joy of reading from him.

So here is my call to textbook publishers.

Please, end your tentative wading into the digital world and jump in. Stop being enamored with your busy layouts and accept that digital screens require a different type of format – a format already set for you by the ePub standard. You may still have your images, charts, and call-outs – an ePub, after all, is basically a XML file with specific extensions. In such a format all your added charts, call-outs, and “think abouts” could just be links which could be tapped in order to access. Images could be embedded into the text itself, and tapped to access a zoom-able version. By taking up this standard, students like my son could have access to the same content a fully-sighted student has, and without a suffering from a diminished experience. If he can’t see something, he may simply enlarge the text and continue reading.

I understand publishers have a business model to protect. To this end I have no problem if you apply some kind of DRM to your textbooks, linked to an account for each student. I dislike DRM intensely, but I understand textbooks are not like other books. They are meant to be used year after year in the same class context. Students don’t own textbooks (at least, not until college), they borrow them from their school. If DRM can be a way to make sure the books get “handed in,” then I’ll grudgingly make a exception for it in this case. Just understand any system you develop will be cracked, but most people will play by the rules if you treat them well.

Just, please, make the shift to standard eBooks while I can still salvage some of my son’s educational experience.