Accessible maths

How a learning technologist came to work on accessible maths

My first foray into the world of accessible maths started when I did some user research with one of our blind students on a Maths undergraduate programme. I started doing research on the common terms I came across when I searched for accessible maths (mathjax, mathtype, unicode, LaTeX and R) and worked with willing tutors to explore further. We organised an accessible STEM forum where tutors from several departments came together to discuss what was possible and it soon became clear that

  • there were many ways people were producing maths content,
  • some tutors produced presentation files and separate handouts, others only provided students with the presentation files,
  • tutors typically wanted the ability to number and reference equations in a handout,
  • most students still preferred their handouts in PDF form to ensure it ‘looked’ the way the tutors intended.

From this understanding, we created our first accessible maths primer to record and document the ways we could make maths more accessible depending on a tutor’s starting point. Each row in the primer required further research and this work was typically allocated to interns to explore further. Tutors could then do further research on how to adapt the ideas to their own ways of working.

Progressing our accessible maths project

For 3 years in a row, I’ve been successful in getting funding for digital accessibility projects. It’s helpful to keep a list of questions that you’re trying to solve so that when you need to write a bid quickly, you can be clear on what you need help with. Apart from a list of questions, having a list of resources to explore is another way to discover quick wins for your organisation. Your project may then be to discover how applicable some of these available solutions are to you.

Our first project with interns was very broad and only one intern was able to help me delve into accessible maths. We focused on producing accessible maths from Word documents, and this led us to implementing mathjax on the VLE, and acquiring mathtype licences for staff and students. I continued to explore how tutors were producing handouts and presentations from LaTeX files but didn’t have enough background in LaTeX to make meaningful progress.

I also continued to play with Texthelp EquatIO as I could see how having a tool to screenshot or handwrite equations to convert into accessible maths would be helpful. We were fortunate that our Disability Services were able to fund the procurement of Texthelp Read&Write, EquatIO, Mathspace and PDF reader to make text and maths more accessible to all our students. Getting the tool deployed is only half the story; you then need to be able to support it and promote its adoption. We worked with Texthelp and our Maths Skills Centre to raise awareness of EquatIO and Mathspace, but the tools were made available during lockdown and it was harder to run a campaign when staff and students were already juggling so many new technologies.

For our second project, I made creating a LaTeX template our objective and employed a Maths student to help explain to me what LaTeX was and to explore how we could make outputs from LaTeX more accessible. I feel it’s important to start from where people are and that meant building up my understanding of the tutors’ workflows. The intern also helped to produce more learning materials for EquatIO because many of the webinars run by Texthelp did not have higher level maths in their examples. Texthelp were very helpful in running a bespoke webinar for us so we were able to create more tutorials from the recording. I learned a lot by working in a focused way on these two aspects of accessible maths, but we also generated many more questions! We were able to publish our accessible equations website from this second project and it put me in a good position to write my next proposal.

Our third project involved several departments, and trying to apply our limited guidance to their workflows and documents with the help of interns. This would test out how practical the advice was, and provide tutors with a baseline of more accessible materials for the next academic year. We worked with 6 departments on mathematical materials, converting handwritten maths to digital maths, or applying more accessible elements to their LaTeX files. In some departments, we targetted materials that would be used by the most number of students to ensure we were maximising the value from the project.

The interns were able to use EquatIO to scan the handwritten maths and then copy the Tex code into our LaTeX template. This meant that accessible version of PDFs, Word or HTML files could easily be produced from the LaTeX files. Another department had their handwritten materials converted directly to Xerte web pages (Xerte is our web authoring tool). Again, EquatIO was used to screenshot the handwritten maths, but sometimes, the interns found it just as quick to type Tex directly into EquatIO or Xerte. Tutors were provided with guidance on how to continue the workflow. I personally gained a lot of experience using EquatIO to help create accessible assessments on Blackboard. Luckily the EquatIO extension worked well to help us with this task.

The LaTeX template was found to have some features missing that tutors wanted to have, for example, it’s not possible to number equations automatically and make them hyperlinkable. This feature is handled by a ‘package’ in LaTeX that conflicts with the accessibility package that we adopted. We have some further work to do in exploring alternative workflows that may combine the accessibility features that we want, with numbered equations. We’ll be exploring Nic Freeman’s lwarp package in our next maths project and will report on our progress in due course.

On 9th June 2021, I was invited to talk about accessibility in STEM subjects for the National Association for Disability Practitioners (NADP) conference. It was an opportunity to ask tutors about the adaptations they had made to deal with lockdown teaching and it was heartening to see that more work had been digitised or provided to students in advance, and that tutors were likely to continue this practice even after we returned to face to face teaching. My slides for the event can be accessed in the links at the end of this blog post.

One fantastic outcome of the project is the engagement with tutors. Many have expressed an interest in being part of a working group to continue researching the solutions to our list of questions. While I was focused on LaTeX, other tutors have been using R MarkDown to output accessible formats. I’m likely to need another intern to explain R MarkDown to me (!) but it’s gratifying to know that the academics are starting to invest time in making their documents accessible even when interns aren’t involved. It’s a more sustainable route to have tutors doing the research and implementing the workflows directly for any new documents that they make.

Another fantastic outcome is the growing pool of students who are experienced with maths and creating accessible documents. I hope they will spread their skills as they work in their own departments and continue to contribute their skills by being part of our university working group for accessible maths.

What’s next

The next stage for me is to disseminate the outputs and guidance from the project to the rest of the university and to run our first working group meeting to plan the actions ahead. I will also aim to evaluate student reactions to the more accessible documents and formats that they will now have access to. The Chemistry interns ran a parallel track, exploring Chemistry workflows with EquatIO. I have yet to get my head around it, but it’s great to know there is this pile of amazing outputs from students to fuel the accessibility journey in the academic year ahead.

User research is very important to me, and I’m lucky enough to have time with a blind maths student to test out my understanding of what works for her. I also spend time with students who use screen magnifiers or have other disabilities or are neurodivergent – not all of them study modules with maths so it’s not always easy getting direct feedback on the outputs we’re making, but I’m always on the lookout for these opportunities!

I’m now part of the JISC Accessibility Clinic sub-group for Maths which means some Universities are sharing questions and solutions – I haven’t even started on Statistics yet but hope to gain some resources from other Universities working on this. As a sub-group, we’re hoping to disseminate our work through a Github page.

Partnerships and wider working is great, but I know that without the interns and disabled students helping me to test and understand how things work, I would not be able to confidently make recommendations on workflows to my own staff. Their energy and hard work has been inspirational to the departments they have worked with and they have helped us to make significant progress. I hope we can continue to fund internship projects so staff can continue learning with our students’ help.

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