Accessible Stem Challenges

man teaching math at a chalkboard full of math expressions and diagrams.
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Creating accessible STEM content for the web is not simple.

(In case you’re not aware, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.)

There are limited tools for creating accessible STEM content for the web, as well as limited technology for reading/studying the content.

Typically, the visual nature of STEM is the biggest challenge in creating accessible digital content. So often, a visual depiction of STEM is created because it is so challenging to describe the content verbally.

Accessibility can be ironic.

Because there is no effective technology to decipher and describe graphs, charts, and other graphical representations of STEM content, we are reduced to simply describing the images of this content that can not be easily represented by other digital means.

You need a specialized ability to verbalize complex STEM content in a way that is understandable, as well as a deep understanding of the STEM content itself. It helps to have instructional design skills to discern the instructional strategy and create an accessible alternative.

Most of the math teachers I know do not have a degree in instructional design – thankfully we have a technology that is helping bridge the gap.

MathML

For the discipline of Math, there is some ability to render accessible expressions via digital technology.

Using a technology called MathML, it is possible to codify a mathematic expression so that it can be communicated over the Internet and even read by screenreaders.

The ML from MathML stands for “Markup Language”. The different aspects of the mathematical expression are identified through specialized tags to identify both the operator and/or value of numerical information and their placement within the expression.

Semantics Through Layout

For math content, another confounding issue is that a lot of the meaning is conveyed through the visual layout of expressions. It becomes challenging to accurately express complicated expressions simply as verbal descriptions.

It is even more challenging to learn math by listening to verbal descriptions without the ability to interact with the components of the expression.

True usability occurs when a student can interact with each part of the expression and navigate through the different parts of the expression – in the same way a sighted person “studies” key parts of the expression to discern the meaning.

Simply listening to the expression is not the same thing as studying and navigating through the individual parts of an expression, and MathML provides a solution that is more accessible than a simple description (however difficult the description might be to come up with).

Special Characters

Another confounding issue with STEM is the use of special characters and the Greek alphabet. These characters are not always commonly supported, either from the reading or creating standpoint.

Limited Alternatives

Because MathML is so challenging to work with, a lot of people simply create images of expressions and provide a verbal description.

This is not really an equitable experience for someone who can not see, and certainly not the most effective way to teach Math.

Nemeth Braille

For those few individuals who have the ability to read Nemeth Braille, there is a solution in the form of electronic refreshable Braille displays. Much like a screenreader can verbalize information, they can also provide a tactile representation through a refreshable Braille display.

When provided with properly formatted MathML.

But hey, it’s easier than making Nemeth Braille!

LaTEX

LaTEX (pronounced LAW-tek) is a text-based code for representing mathematical expressions.

Originally used in the printing and typesetting of STEM books before the digital revolution, LaTEX is a code that allows for representing mathematical expressions in a text format. This is a good option if you and your students happen to know LaTEX.

Reading Expressions vs. Interacting with Expressions

For most people, it isn’t very difficult to recognize the challenge of learning math by only listening to descriptions of mathematical expressions.

Realize that students need to express their understanding of the material as well.

So students need to learn how to speak mathematical expressions back to the teacher (in addition to learning math), or be able to transcribe into LaTEX.

MathType

Thankfully there is a program called MathType.

MathType allows for easy creation of mathematical expressions and chemistry formulas that can also be rendered as accessible web pages for use with screenreaders and magnifiers.

MathType also supports LaTEX, so for students and teachers who know LaTEX, it is even more powerful.

MathType has a standalone application as well as multiple plugins for different popular authoring programs such as MS Word and PowerPoint.

Recently, MathType released new plugins for Google Docs and WordPress, as well as the Canvas LMS and Moodle LMS, increasing the range of options for creating and presenting accessible math content.

Desktop vs Web

There are different pricing options for MathType plugins for Canvas and Moodle. Read more about the differences at the Design Science Website.

The Google MathType plugin is free, and it creates accessible math expressions within a Google doc.

The standalone version of MathType will also integrate into all recent versions of MS Word, in addition to having its own standalone interface.

MathType Basic Workflow

You create and edit your mathematic expressions in the MathType Editor.

Whether you prefer working in the Desktop version…

MathType Equation Editor.
MathType Equation Editor.

… or the Web-based version of MathType.

MathType Google plugin.
MathType Google plugin.

Both versions allow you to create accessible web-based math expressions, the desktop version also supports additional workflows for non web-based and printed math.

MathType in MS Word

When you install the desktop version of MathType, it also populates MS Word with a plugin that allows you to create and embed math expressions within your MS Word document.

MS Word with MathType add-in.
MS Word with MathType add-in.

The MathType toolbar provides powerful support for creating and editing math expressions inside MS Word.

You can also use the MS Word plugin to create accessible web-based math expressions.

Creating Math Expressions

MathType provides many pre-built expression components that are commonly used in math, and it also provides the individual elements of math expressions to allow you to create whatever kind of math you need to.

There are common groupings on dedicated tabs for Algebra, Derivatives, Statistics, Matrices, Sets, Trigonometry, and Geometry.

  1. Click on the element you want to add, and then use the keyboard to enter the numbers and variables of your expression.
  2. Use the arrow keys to move around within the expression.
  3. DON’T USE the SPACEBAR, it does not work in MathType. MathType takes care of the spacing automatically.
  4. When you have finished entering the math expression, go to the File menu of the MathType editor and choose “Close and return to MS Word”.
  5. MathType will ask you if you want to save the expression, say yes.

Publish to Webpage

When you have completed your page of math and you are ready to create the web-based version, click on the MathType toolbar.

Mathtype toolbar.
MathType toolbar.

Click the “Publish to MathPage” option.

Publish to MathPage option from the MathType Toolbar in MS Word.
Publish to MathPage option from the MathType Toolbar in MS Word.

The Publish to MathPage options will open. In the “Equations” section, choose MathML.

Publish to MathPage options.
Publish to MathPage options.

There is a pull-down menu that allows you to fine-tune your choice of technology for rendering the MathML. Check with your system administrator to verify which version is supported by your LMS.

Firefox for Math

The support for MathML varies from browser to browser, and unfortunately, it often varies over time as well. As of today, I had best results in the Firefox browser using NVDA to test the different output options.

I also found adequate support in Chrome with the Google Docs MathType output using the NVDA screenreader.

MathType enjoys a place as the sole option in terms of being able to easily produce accessible math expressions.

Learn more about MathType and the different authoring environments it is supported in at the Design Science website.

Now you have an option for creating accessible math expressions for the web.

Thanks for reading!

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