Digital Textbooks – Better but still not good enough

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter and there is a definite nip in the evening air. After two or three months of care free holidays, children and young adults, all over the country, are getting ready for another academic year. Although more years than I care to mention since my school days, I share the sense of foreboding felt by some of these young people during the close of summer. It’s not the approach of double maths on a Monday morning or a state exam on the horizon that I dread. As an AT Technician working in Enable Ireland, it is the inevitable queries from parents and therapists about digital textbooks that is the cause of my anxiety. Can we get textbooks in digital format? How? Will they be compatible with the technology being recommended? If they are workbooks, how will they fill in the answers? These are some of the very pertinent, and for the most part frustratingly unanswerable questions that come in at this time of year. In the remainder of this post I’ll try to clarify the current situation, just don’t expect all the answers… sorry.

Can you get textbooks in digital format?

In April 2016 the Irish Educational Publishers’ Association (IEPA), who represent 95% of Irish educational publishing houses, agreed on a centralised special needs policy relating to making texts available in digital format. This is progress, although limited as you will soon see. Their policy (which you can read here) falls short of committing to the supply a digital version of the textbook to those who need them. “The publisher will make every effort to accommodate the request but cannot guarantee the availability of a particular title, or a title in a specific format. The format of the title remains at the discretion of the publisher.” Reading into this a little I think it’s safe to assume that all the commonly used titles will be available but anything a bit out of the ordinary will not.

How do I get digital versions of school textbooks?

Up until last year this was a tough one. Each publisher had different requirements and there was little information publicly available. Thankfully the IEPA have made some efforts to standardise the process which is also outlined on the page linked above. “The request must be submitted by a parent, or teacher, of the named student, accompanied by acceptable proof of medical condition. Files, in pdf, text files or eBook access are then provided to the student in question.” Obviously it’s not ideal that “proof of medical condition” needs to be submitted, but it is perhaps understandable from the publishers’ perspective that there are some restrictions.

Will the digital textbooks be compatible with the technology being recommended?

This is the question that keeps me up at night (well this and the new season of Game of Thrones) because there are so many variables. We would need to know the format that the textbooks will be supplied in, and the IEPA are very non-committal in this regard. Statements like “Files, in pdf, text files or eBook..”, and “The format of the title remains at the discretion of the publisher”, make it quite clear that they refuse to be pinned down. This really needs to be looked at. It is not in the publishers’ interests to commit to a specific format. It is however in the students’ interests, particularly students with access or literacy difficulties that require the use Assistive Technology. This is something the Department of Education need to enforce, as is the case in other jurisdictions. The only advice I can give here is to contact the publishers and find out what format the textbooks will be supplied in, then contact us at Enable Ireland AT Service.

If they are workbooks how will they fill in the answers?

Depends on the format, see above (sorry).

If you are looking for more on this subject you can read last year’s rant on AT in the Era of the Digital Schoolbag here

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