[BlindMath] STEM in the 21st century

White, Jason J jjwhite at ets.org
Thu Jan 21 15:20:08 UTC 2021

As a user, I definitely prefer well structured, accessible HTML to any form of PDF. I also think PDF has an important role as the successor to Postscript. If you want a file that preserves exact page layout and typography, PDF is the undisputed, contemporary solution. If you want to print such a document, again, PDF is the answer.
For many other purposes (including good accessibility), modern HTML is better. It's easy to provide both formats, as long as the necessary conversion tools exist for whatever source format is used. My current personal solution is a makefile that can generate PDF using lualatex, and HTML using the lwarp package. I write the documents in LaTeX, then give colleagues both the HTML and PDF versions. Unfortunately, there's no officially supported path for generating HTML from LaTeX, so we have a range of tools with different strengths and weaknesses. The tagged PDF project is also supposed to enable support for HTML production, which to my mind would be the greater benefit so far as accessibility is concerned.
At one point I also tested tagged PDF on multiple operating systems and multiple PDF reading tools. As I recall, the tags were only processed by Adobe Reader (with a Microsoft Windows screen reader). In general, other reading tools seemed to ignore the tags entirely. I understand that Chromium may implement support for tagged PDF as well, but I don't know how well advanced that project now is.

-----Original Message-----
From: BlindMath <blindmath-bounces at nfbnet.org> On Behalf Of Jonathan Fine via BlindMath
Sent: Thursday, January 21, 2021 9:59 AM
To: Blind Math list for those interested in mathematics <blindmath at nfbnet.org>
Cc: Jonathan Fine <jfine2358 at gmail.com>
Subject: Re: [BlindMath] STEM in the 21st century

Hi Jonathan G

Thank you for sharing your experience and hopes in your message. You've given us a lot to think about. I've written a blog post on your contribution, and some other threads on this list. This will I think help LaTeX developers be aware of the blind math experience.

My main conclusion as a TeX developer is that many on this list prefer accessible HTML to accessible PDF. I hope that's a fair statement.

By the way, I hold an online TeX Office Hour every Thursday 6:30 to 7:30pm UK time. All are welcome. Here's the zoom details

Meeting ID: 785 5125 5396
Passcode: knuth

with best regards

Jonathan F

On Mon, Jan 11, 2021 at 11:29 PM Godfrey, Jonathan via BlindMath < blindmath at nfbnet.org> wrote:

> 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.
> Jonathan
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