[BlindMath] STEM in the 21st century

Godfrey, Jonathan A.J.Godfrey at massey.ac.nz
Mon Jan 11 23:28:16 UTC 2021

Hello all,

This has turned out to be a lengthy opinion piece. I hope it provokes responses, either on or off the list.

I've just read the thread on accessing equations in a pdf and use of LaTeX, and decided not to contribute because my relevant points have been made by others.

I guess I find myself quite frustrated that this discussion comes up periodically and so little has changed, or at least the changes that have been made have not led to the discussion becoming redundant.

A few tools have been developed since I joined this list over 12 years ago. Access to math content in HTML is considerably better today courtesy of MathML and MathJax and the ability of two screen readers to help. If I get you to look at the archive, or wind your memories back, we were praising Wikipedia for using the source LaTeX as the alt tag for its math content. I'm confident most blind people new to reading wikipedia's math content today wouldn't know how much better it is today than ten years ago.

Use of markdown as a viable alternative to full-blown LaTeX is another gain for us, but I feel that it gets seen as a tool for geeks because it uses a command line operation to get to the more desirable HTML (or pdf if you must) final document. LaTeX is also seen as a geek's tool if we're  really honest.

I used to use TeX4HT as my main tool for getting HTML from LaTeX source. This was and probably still is, an excellent tool. How much traction does it get though? Not much. Why? I don't know, but my current theory is that tools that aren't right under people's noses or automatically applied in the background just don't get as much traction.

I detest pdf as a format. I don't know if that bias can or ever will be reduced or removed. Even the best developments in the last ten years haven't yet given me the confidence to stop using HTML in favour of the most accessible pdf on offer today. The work being done is really awesome and I truly appreciate the efforts to improve pdf accessibility. I like that people have put effort into getting better access to equations and graphics in pdf files in particular. My discomfort starts when I see that the best these efforts hope to achieve is what we already have in HTML documents. This was not true ten years ago when HTML didn't offer us a solution.

So, what does a  pdf offer today that isn't on offer in HTML? Plenty of things that relate to the way it looks when printed on a piece of paper and sometimes on a screen. The width of the margins is of next to zero importance to me, after all,  I read the words not the white space.

My major issue is that the ongoing use of pdf and everything about the dead tree model to assessment, especially in examination situations, is that the way we ask questions is being constrained by the tools we use. For years, I've wanted to use a digital exam process for my students. The barriers to this have been numerous, but mostly they come down to the inability to get people to change. Simple solution: change people by walking away from intransigent individuals and wait for an enlightened person to come along next year. That is, don't expect a person to change, switch person instead.

Then, along comes a global pandemic. Wow, do people want to change the way they do things so that we retain students and therefore academic jobs. Suddenly, the things I've wanted to introduce or have introduced by stealth are what many others now want too. OK, you might think to start popping the champagne, clapping hands (only your own), and singing happy songs. No sorry, don't get too excited. Little actually changed.

The pragmatic solution for many of my colleagues was 20th century thinking. Let's produce a pdf exam, upload it onto our 21st century teaching platform, and get students to print it, write on it, and upload their work by taking photos of it.

Other colleagues took the plunge and made decent online exams with students answering questions by typing into the boxes on the web page. This is what we did in my department as it happens, but the mathematicians along the corridor could not manage this because their students couldn't type up their work. In part this is because of the questions being asked. For example, in a pen and paper world, a common question is, "Invert the following 3x3 matrix." But what does it actually achieve? In 2020, with students doing their exams without supervision, there was nothing stopping a student from checking their answer using software. (I'd encourage it as it happens).

At what point though do we decide to stop asking questions that are only ever asked in an exam context? I really would not expect a graduate of a 21st century math degree to ever do a matrix inversion outside an exam except to prove that it can be done. Why? Because we have software. When do we say that is OK to use software in an exam and alter our questions accordingly? Say, moving to a 4x4 matrix and asking to prove that the solution is valid?

In my own field of statistics, the work we are doing is starting to affect our teaching, and therefore how we examine our students. Our online exam environment couldn't accept a picture being pasted into the dialogue box, but it did accept the code used to generate a graph. As it happens, this was brilliant for me because I was able to download all exam submissions as a single text file. I did more independent marking in 2020 than I did in the previous ten years.

I believe the changes being forced on our education systems by a pandemic are a massive opportunity to see things change for the better. I think the colleagues who had to deal with piles of student photographs will learn they did it the hard way and want to modernise. Even the mathematicians I work alongside will have to change.

I therefore conclude with a prediction. Life in STEM as a blind person is getting better. I suggest though, that it is not getting easier. I firmly believe that even the most experienced among us will need to be learning new tricks at a faster rate than we have been in the past. Our survival depends on it. For me, that means not wasting time on fighting with pdf files, software that doesn't work, and people that insist I do either. In that respect, 2020 was a good year for me.


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