Spotlight on Innovation: How Georgia Tech and AMAC Are Working to Make Course Materials More Accessible

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

Despite increased demand for more accessible course materials for disabled students, there is often a lot of inertia on the part of the textbook industry. Georgia Tech’s Bob Martinengo, who serves as the accessibility solutions publisher outreach specialist for AMAC Accessibility Solutions—an organization that is part of Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture, and that was incubated out of the University System of Georgia in 2005—offers this theory for why some changes have been slow:

“The industry has often said ‘yes, but we are concerned about cost’ or ‘we’re working on this project, but maybe tomorrow.’ The problem has been around so long that there’s little measurable movement.”
Bob Martinengo, AMAC and Georgia Tech

Martinengo wants to see two things change, in particular:

  • Increase the pace of change to build excitement around innovations in course materials accessibility; “we need a tipping point moment.”
  • Empower diverse students with more say about the digital platforms they use and how they wish to read textbooks.

Rethinking the Market

“The overarching theme is that students with disabilities are going to be more and more involved in the mainstream product market,” explains Martinengo. “They need to have accessible materials that they can purchase from the same sources as students without disabilities.”

Martinengo notes that this transition has already begun, but that there’s also a lot of opportunity now to accelerate and improve it.

Martinengo believes that Georgia Tech’s AMAC is in a unique position to help drive change and spark a “tipping point” moment. AMAC already has a number of critical skills under one roof and already has direct relationships with many textbook publishers.

With the aid of a $3.8 million First in the World grant from the US Departmenr of Education, Bob Martinengo and the grant’s Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Christopher Lee, AMAC’s Director, and Dr. Julie Ancis, associate vice president for Georgia Tech’s Office of Institute Diversity, are coordinating a research project to identify new features for existing textbook and course materials product lines, possibilities for more accessible tools, and strategies for making those tools available to organizations of all sizes – not only in Georgia but across the US.

Empowering the Student

One way that Martinengo imagines empowering the student consumer is by creating a “nutritional label” for course material products that provides clear information about what a student can do with the product.

For example, in some cases, an ebook format only works on certain platforms. Martinengo compares this situation to having to purchase one brand of TV in order to watch one network’s programs, and needing to then buy a different TV to watch programs on a different network.

In other cases, a math textbook may arrive in the appropriate format three weeks into the semester, but excludes the equations needed for the math class because the publisher couldn’t determine how to make that portion of the text digitally accessible.

So there are two pressing needs that AMAC’s grant-funded research will seek to address:

  • Label course material products so that students are more informed about what they’ll be able to do (or not do) with the materials.
  • Identify tools and features that publishers can integrate into their products to improve accessibility – and work closely with the industry to implement these.

“A transitional period in course materials can be confusing and stressful as students try to figure out what software works on which tablets or laptops, so we need to build momentum in the midst of this chaotic environment and remind everyone that these are solvable problems.”
Bob Martinengo, AMAC and Georgia Tech

A National Outreach

Georgia Tech’s project will conduct research with minority-serving institutions to identify specific challenges and work with their students to determine which interventions would be most effective.

The grant has allowed Georgia Tech to establish the Center for Accessible Materials Innovation that will work to expand access to digital content for students with disabilities at minority-serving institutions and will also provide a central professional development resource. He wants to provide guidance for other institutions in empowering students with more choice in accessing course materials.

In developing this, it will be critical to identify basic, core principles for institutions to focus on—principles that are independent of rapidly evolution in technology. For example, one core principle would be to establish a course materials adoption and purchasing review policy that takes accessibility into account.

This central resource will also make easier for student and faculty consumers of course materials to articulate what they want and need more systematically.

“Consumer demand needs to play a big part in changing the way the industry approaches accessibility solutions. If consumers can articulate what they want through a more systematic approach, companies are more likely to create products that meet consumer demand. It’s not just push, they have to be pulled.”
Bob Martinengo, AMAC and Georgia Tech

Why You Should Watch this Project

Of the 24 First in the World granted projects, this is the only one tackling the specific needs of students with disabilities. We are very excited by the project’s focus on national outreach and on providing resources across the industry. We are also excited by the focus on empowering student choice and creating more consistent information around course material accessibility.

Are we near a “tipping point” moment now?

How is your institution addressing the challenges of making course materials more accessible?

If your department or institution is growing its online courses but you are very early in addressing the issue of course material accessibility for online learners, consider taking our online training on universal design and accessibility.