At Virginia Tech Publishing, Anita Walz and colleagues have been working on publishing workflows to better facilitate accessibility in STEM. As Walz noted in a 2020 LPC blog post, 60% of students at Virginia Tech are in STEM disciplines and it was crucial for the library’s publishing program to ensure that these students had equivalent access to open access STEM materials.
Walz and her team have experimented with various workflows for publishing STEM materials, always basing their work on the OER author’s preferences for tools and file formats. When the team first began investigating barriers to accessibility in STEM, they discovered several common issues:
- Authors often created STEM notation using various tools, including image editors and obsolete software. Some of these tools were less than ideal for accessibility, and others were no longer available to the team wishing to remediate accessibility.
- Math notation often rendered as a picture rather than machine-readable code.
- Accessibility options and workflows varied widely depending on file format.
- STEM notation sometimes could not be edited without access to source files held by the author.
PDFs created tremendous headaches for the team early on. For instance, in one case, an author working in LaTeX embedded alt text in the LaTeX code. In an effort to accommodate screen readers that look in different places for alt text, the publishing team exported a PDF copy of the textbook and re-tagged STEM notation with alt text. This workflow has proven largely unsustainable and the team is now focusing their accessibility efforts on formats other than PDF. For example, whenever possible, they provide access to LaTeX source files with the understanding that screen readers can use MathJax to convert LaTeX to audio.
Along with the LaTeX-to-PDF workflow, the Virginia Tech team has experimented with publishing workflows for Pressbooks. They found, for instance, that they could use the following methods to ensure accessibility:
- Import LaTeX into Pressbooks, which can use MathJax to convert formulas for display and printing
- Use AsciiMath notation in Pressbooks
- Use MathML in Pressbooks
Based on their experiences, Virginia Tech has pulled together useful resources for STEM accessibility in a Google doc that they intend to later formalize. Walz also talked about STEM accessibility workflows in an Open Education Conference session, “Re-envisioning Accessibility for Math-Intensive OER.” Be sure to check back in the future to learn more about Virginia Tech’s evolving experiences in this arena.