Standards For Electronic Instructional Materials

November 6, 2002

Alan Kotok

Most people with visual impairments rely on methods like Braille to consume material offered in books and other printed media. However, the availability of these materials is limited. Visually disabled school children have an even more extreme problem due to the scarcity of instructional materials in a format they can consume.

A bill in the US Congress now addresses these issues for blind students, and if it becomes law, XML will likely play a key role in its implementation. The ability to create and capture text and images in electronic form creates the potential to create learning materials more quickly and easily than before. Ken Pittman's review of Digital Talking Book (DTB) technology in (16 October 2002, The Digital Talking Book) outlined the standards and critical role of XML behind the DAISY technology on which DTB is based. The publishing industry, advocates for the blind, and some states are already at work to put legislative muscle behind these developments, at least for classroom materials.

Support Cuts Across Party Lines

The bill in question is called the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA) of 2002. Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, introduced the bill (S. 2246, see the online text of the bill) in April 2002, with 22 Senate co-sponsors from both parties. In July 2002 Rep. Thomas Petri of Wisconsin submitted a similar bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 4582), with 84 co-sponsors also crossing party lines.

IMAA has the backing of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Patricia Schroeder, president of AAP and former member of Congress from Colorado, testified at the 28 June hearings on its behalf. Other organizations involved in the bill's drafting or endorsing the legislation include American Council of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), American Printing House for the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, National Federation of the Blind, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

Among the problems addressed by the bill are the long lead time and high cost needed to translate books and other printed media into Braille. At the opening of hearings on the bill held on 28 June, Dodd said, "blind and visually-impaired students face interminable waits for their school textbooks to arrive in Braille, the school districts in which they live often face exorbitant costs producing these conversions."

IMAA Calls For National Electronic File Standard

Another problem the bill tackles is the lack of an uniform standard for electronic file conversions. While Digital Talking Book offers a solid specification for electronic file conversions, it is a voluntary standard, and states can now specify any format for their materials. As a result, a key part of the legislation directs the Department of Education to develop the Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards, which shall

(A) define the specific technical parameters of the national electronic file format to be used by publishers of instructional materials in the preparation of electronic files suitable for efficient conversion into specialized formats; and

(B) be consistent with and based upon existing and emerging standards relating to electronic publishing and translation technology used to produce specialized formats.

With the DTB standard already endorsed by NISO, an ANSI-accredited body, this standard will likely be a leading candidate for adoption. In implementing legislation, particularly in areas of technology, federal agencies usually defer to private sector standards, particularly where those standards are voluntary and when an industry uses consensus-based procedures to develop the standard. An example is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, where the Department of Health and Human Services specified national EDI standards for business transactions involving insurance companies and health care providers (see HHS's Administrative Simplification).

Also, as I reported earlier this year on XML adoption in the US federal government (24 April 2002, Government and Finance Industry Urge Caution on XML), agencies are already instructed to make maximum use of existing implementations of XML rather than create their own.

Sticks and Carrots For The States

In the US individual states have most of the responsibility for public education, and the bill puts most of the responsibility for implementation on the states. IMAA requires each state within two years to implement statewide plans and to write contracts with publishers to ensure that elementary and secondary school classroom materials are available for blind students as well as their fellow sighted students. The bill also requires contracts with publishers to include a clause requiring materials to meet the Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards. The bill ties these requirements to other legislation (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Public Law 105-17) that provides funds to the states for education of the disabled, thus giving enforcement teeth to the mandates.

The bill provides incentives as well. Section 5 of IMAA calls for a National Instructional Materials Access Center to act as a repository for instructional materials in the specified national electronic file format, both student and teacher editions. The center will also encourage distribution of standard electronic files, subject to copyright restrictions. Section 6 of IMAA authorizes grants to state and local educational agencies, regional education groups, and not-for-profit organizations which assist the blind "to provide or improve the capacity of such entities to prepare or obtain instructional materials in specialized formats..."

Many States In A Bind, But Some Moving On The Problem

Because many states face tight financial conditions now and in the immediate future, they will no doubt welcome the financial assistance in the bill. But many states have already shown a willingness to move ahead on this technology. Senator Dodd noted some 26 states have already passed laws requiring publishers to provide textbooks in electronic formats to help in Braille conversion. Kentucky reportedly tried to specify the DTB standard as its only preferred electronic format but later relaxed the requirements to include other electronic formats (see the final state law text).

Another leader among the states is the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which acts as a national resource for education agencies and institutions in other states. The school hosts the American Foundation for the Blind's Textbook and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum, which lists 19 states (in addition to Texas and Kentucky) with policies to assure equal access to instructional materials for blind or visually impaired students. Also in Texas is the Texas Text Exchange, a clearinghouse for the exchange of electronic books that serves some 100 institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

Many states, however, lack the financial resources and trained staff needed to acquire electronic versions of instructional materials or to use them effectively. New Hampshire requires a learning media assessment for all functionally blind students and instruction in Braille or other appropriate medium, but achieving that goal is becoming increasingly difficult. The state currently has limited access to custom-made Braille or large-print books, and while the electronic files in XML or other formats have promise, there are few schools in New Hampshire with staffed trained in the technology (see Goal 7 of the "New Hampshire Agenda").

In Wisconsin, the schools often face long delays for some instructional materials and are in a resource crunch as well. A 1998 state report notes that some 10% of materials for blind or visually impaired students are not available in classrooms by December of the school year, with specialized textbooks, such as for foreign language instruction, taking even longer. The state relies on volunteer Braille experts to convert textbooks; while the use of volunteers holds down costs, volunteers are not always a reliable source of expertise.

An Uncertain Future

While IMAA attracted wide co-sponsor support, its prospects for immediate enactment are uncertain. Sen. Dodd chairs the subcommittee on children and families of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As a result, the bill has progressed further in the Senate than in the House of Representatives, with Senate hearings held in June 2002.

In the House the bill was referred to subcommittee on education reform on 15 July 2002. That subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, does not yet have hearings on the bill scheduled. With Congress in recess until midterm elections, and hot-button issues such as the current fiscal year budget and homeland security not settled, this bill may not get finished until the 108th Congress that convenes in 2003.