[Athen] Pearson MySpanishLab and screen readers (long)

Deborah Armstrong armstrongdeborah at fhda.edu
Mon Sep 23 07:29:37 PDT 2019

We have at least four visually impaired students taking Spanish this Fall. New students who are part of spanish-speaking families take Spanish because they see it as an easy course. But, in my eighteen years here, everyone I know who took Spanish and identified themselves to me as visually impaired dropped or flunked the course, so I decided to take it myself. Also I want to be faster at proofreading and marking up Spanish exams.

I am a screen reader user who took Spanish in high school 45 years ago, and majored in German and Italian in college. I love learning languages and am willing to work on access barriers. But I'm not an accessibility specialist; as a screen reader user I'm only looking at the reader's off-screen model and not the actual website. And I only know some basic HTML. So if anyone has tips for improving my access, bring them on!

Feel free to share this post with anyone.

After two days of using Pearson's MyLanguage lab, I have some successes and some frustrations.

First the textbook: what an accessible experience! I'd gotten a PDF supplied from the publisher through the ATN, but the reading order was completely messed up, though all the text appeared to be there. What a delight it was to discover the textbook included with MyLab in HTML with descriptions for all the diagrams, language tags so that the synthesizer pronounced Spanish as Spanish and English as English. This was hidden though under a link labeled "Accessible Resources" which I skipped originally because I thought it would just be a lot of marketing hoopla from Pearson. But no, no marketing whatsoever. Instead the entire textbook is there.

You can view only one page at a time, but you always have a table of contents and page numbers are there and completely match the printed textbook.

I still haven't figured out how to bookmark a page or go directly to a specific page in the accessible textbook. There are lots of tech support articles for using the image view, along with its navigation pane, but with the accessible textbook, you have to keep scrolling through the table of contents. Perhaps there's a non-obvious way to go to a particular page or add a bookmark but I haven't found it yet.

The course layout is very consistent and I bet intuitive visually. But for a screen reader user, it can be annoying because there are so many navigation elements you have to get through to find the actual content. It does use Aria but headings are rarer. Also it takes so long to get to the actual site. I have to go to MyPortal which is our college's single sign-in. Then I hve to find Canvas which is a clickable element and not a link. Then I have to find De Anza Canvas, which is a link. Then I have to find my course on the Canvas dashboard. Then I have to find MyLab and Mastering. Then there's a Canvas intro page that informs me the content is partner provided (DO I CARE). Then I can select Open MyLab and Mastering. Then I'm at the Today's view, unless a modal dialog for Getting started covers it up. There's a "don't show this again" check box which I've checked but it shows it again, again and again! Then I select View entire course content, which is buried within a ton of other navigation links.

So accessible but Oh so TEDIOUS! About this time if I were a student I'd be dropping the course.

Oh, I am a student. Well, I'm not dropping yet. Instead, I now have a table with all the exercises, both graded and extra practice listing my progress and disconcertingly the time I spent on each one. That time is hours trying to get the silly audio to play in Chrome!

I tried bookmarking pages so I could return to them quickly but most of them pop up dynamically and you can't just create bookmarks or desktop shortcuts and have them work.

The exercises seem to be a mixed bag. There are many with little audio snippits you play by pressing a play button. After you listen you can use typical form fields, check boxes, radio buttons and combo boxes to make a choice, and the results are immediately scorred and displayed so you can check your progress, trying again, if necessary.

These work great except for one screen reader glitch. In Chrome with JAWS I can only get audio to play if I turn off the virtual cursor, which of course means I can't read the page. Audio from other sites plays but not this audio. Works fine In Firefox. With NVDA the audio plays but you have to go in to focus mode first then press the play button. Then you have to exit Focus mode to locate the correct answer. Frustrating! And with Narrator in Chrome, you can play the audio easily but the page is difficult to read and interact with because Narrator isn't as sophisticated as NVDA or JAWS. So this is clearly a screen reader bug and you can believe I'm "bugging!" the vendors about it!

Another type of exercise shows a conversation with lines you are supposed to put in order. I'll post an example below. The problem is that you have to drag and drop the lines to rearrange them. Instructions suggest using the Tab and control keys to locate and drag, but I'm not sure how to accomplish this. Ctrl-Tab takes you to another browser tab. Tab might go to the next line, but if it does screen readers don't read that. Control doesn't seem to do anything whether not focus/forms mode is enabled, and when those modes are enabled, (virtual cursor is off) the screen reader reads almost nothing.

Here's an example, pasted from the site:

Pablo is introducing his friend, Susana, to his other friend, Julia. Drag the lines to the correct order in the conversation, or use tab to navigate to
the item on the screen and control key to drag and drop an item.
JULIA: Mucho gusto, Susana.
PABLO: ¡Hasta luego!
PABLO: Muy bien. Esta es mi amiga Julia.
SUSANA: ¿Qué tal, Pablo?
SUSANA: Hola, Julia. Encantada.
PABLO: ¡Hola, Susana!

An easy way to fix this would be to simply give each line a number, and add an edit box where one could type in the numbers and press a "rearrange" button, such as "5,2,4,3,1".

Also though the language tags were accurate on the ebook, they weren't on the exercises. Sometimes English instructions were read with a Spanish voice and Spanish text was read with an English voice.

As the exercises got harder, I found myself depending more and more on my Braille display. Many choices that sounded similar had tiny differences you could only "see" if you spelled the entire line or looked at it in Braille.

Configuring Braille to work properly with all this is another subject, and I'll happily post instructions if enough people are interested. Spent the whole summer figuring that out! But it works beautifully now.

There are a few other frustrations not related to useing a screen reader, but much harder to solve if you depend on one. The browser tune-up which all the MyLab tutorial videos encourage you to run insists on forcing you to install Flash though Flash is depricated and won't be supported by the end of next year. I finally figured out that I had to go to "view site information" in Chrome, tab left from the address bar, tab past "This site is secure, locate the combo box for Flash and enable that. Then all of a sudden, the Browser tune-up thought flash was installed. But because the browser tune-up was a different URL, chrome reverted to disabling flash as soon as I navigated to another page. It appears that Chrome disables flash each time you move to a new page or exit the browser, but I'm unclear on this.
In Chrome settings you can also set Flash for either Blocked or "Ask" but if it asks whether to enable flash on a page, screen readers don't read that.

I'm a bit vague on how this "view site information" works in Chrome because there's no Save button and once you are in it you circle round and round when you press tab. If you exit, it doesn't appear to save, instead you get an alert from an Info bar (Alt-Shift-A) which tells you to press the Reload button, only you cannot focus on that button until you press Alt-shift-A and if you aren't fast enough this infoBar thing apparently disappears! Wish Google would explain how this dialog box works!

In Firefox, there's no problem, though I do have flash installed, but with Firefox, JAWS doesn't always see clickable elements or when the screen gets updated. At this point with the latest of everything installed on Windows 10, JAWS is much more effective with Chrome than Firefox, especially with dynamic, ever-changing content. NVDA seems to work well with either, but then I don't have all those advanced JAWS features like placemarkers, flexible web and such. Yes, I can use NVDA add-ons, and I'll fool with that when I get some more time.

The other annoyance is that it wants you to disable your popup blocker, which I dutifully figured out. Instructions for accomplishing all these tasks in various browsers are visually oriented, and I do wish these online learning things would happily co-exist with browser defaults. Instead they want you clearing caches and history, disabling add-ins, extensions, plugins and add-ons, allowing popups, enabling flash ... the list is endless. They need to give us a one-click app that has a "do-it" button that will -- er' just do it!

I did not test with Safari or Edge because I'm not an advanced user of either. All the Pearson support articles emphasize the need to use the latest updates to the browser, but updating your browser sometimes breaks accessibility, though I do it anyway, because it sometimes fixes accessibility. It's kind of a crap shoot.
Have I mentioned that I spent the whole weekend on this? No wonder visually impaired people drop these courses! I remember the good old days with reel tapes spinning in the language lab, those headache-inducing hard headphones and robotically repeating after disembodied voices on a scratchy record. Not to mention vocabulary lists and memorizing conjugations. I have to admit the interactive exercises in the Pearson lab are a whole lot more fun, after you get past all the barriers, but the barriers are formidable indeed!


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