Widening access content delivery

Investigating the delivery of eBooks and other learning content via smart devices as a short term solution to help the University support students during the recent COVID-19 outbreak.



By using smart assistants to read eBooks and other web content aloud on a variety of smart devices, and by delivering other content on these devices, we will be able to support the accessible delivery and teaching of University content as an alternative to printed materials.

The challenge

With the recent situation around the COVID-19 outbreak closing the OU campus and affecting many of the normal business services, including closing the warehouse, means there is an unprecedented challenge to delivery of printed materials, particularly for those with accessible requirements who need alternative printed packs to support their learning. In normal times these printed packs would be produced, printed, packaged, and delivered to students homes. However, currently this is not possible and has meant that many of the materials are going to be distributed by the module websites in PDF format.

While this will work for many students, it will not be suitable for all and therefore other versions of the materials, such as human-voiced DAISY books, will need to be produced in a very short timeframe. This places a huge demand on the University and means novel approaches will be required to deliver the content on time for those students that require them.

In order to assist with this, we have prioritised the work we are doing in the Smart technology project to bring forward all elements of research and experimentation on eBook and digital learning content delivery via smart devices to assess whether we can assist supporting students at this time. We will be testing multiple approaches to evaluate whether we can deliver content to be consumed via smart devices, including looking at the following specific areas:

  • eBook delivery via smart speakers, with narrated content that can be adapted to student requirements
  • Smart Assistant narration of eBooks as an alternative to DAISY books, including adaptive playback controls
  • automated audio content creation as an alternative to human-voiced audio creation
  • delivering other content via smart displays and Smart TVs

The Benefits

While it is entirely feasible that we will not be able to contribute anything of particular value in the short timeframe required, it is important that we try and anything that we do identify and document in this period will be useful for future work in this area. There are numerous opportunities in the use of smart delivery of content and the hope is that we can find methods that allow us to support students in the short term, even if this is not to the exact same quality and level of robustness that we usually would at the University.

In short, anything we can do will help and we will endeavour to share this knowledge as widely and as quickly as possible with colleagues.


Update: 21 April 2020

After spending a few weeks looking into the various areas of most importance, it would appear that we have hit a dead end, in that they all suffer with the same key issue: copyright blocking and service delivery.

Specifically, it appears that while the various devices and platforms are more than capable of handling the technical specifics of what we would have liked to implement, they are all essentially blocked due to the intellectual property restrictions in place, in addition to the respective companies (publishers and technology partners) wanting to protect revenue by selling audiobooks on the platforms and blocking the upload and delivery of a user's own (or in our case, the University's) eBooks.

We can break down the specific issue in slightly more detail as follows:

  • eBook delivery via smart speakers:
    The services being delivered to the various speakers are dependant on having content available to be read. To do this, the user will usually buy a book from the store and it will appear in their cloud library for that service, making it available to the smart speaker. Some partners are permitted to use this service (e.g. Audible for Echo and Kindle devices) and can also supply their content on the device.

    However, all of the content needs to be approved first and this is usually only a very small set of available content, usually specific titles that publishers want to provide (e.g. selling an additional service on top of the eBook sale), but also some titles provided as part of a subscription, e.g. Amazon Kindle Unlimited titles, that can be read by Alexa. However, the amount of titles available is small even within the permitted library of titles available. Even Amazon's Kindle Unlimited titles tend to be limited, with none of my own personal library available to be read aloud.
  • Smart Assistant narration of eBooks as an alternative to DAISY books, including adaptive playback controls:
    The problem with this is not the ability of the smart assistants to read aloud, as Google Assistant and Alexa can both do this and this can be seen by how Google Assistant can read web pages aloud using Waveform and Alexa can read Kindle books (although Alexa is a slightly less capable reader). If you want to see a demo of how authentic the voice can sound, check out Google's Waveform demo here:

    The issue is that the devices can't get the content to read. Google permit audiobooks in the Google Play Books app and cloud reader and you can add your own eBooks into the Library, but these cannot then be read by the Google Assistant. Upon researching, it seems this is due to copyright, but it means that the reader is unable to do its job. Similar is true for Alexa.

    This may be something that could change in the future and Google are indeed working on opening up access to the Waveform reader, demonstrated by their new 'Read It' function for Android, that reads web pages out (see a video outlining the functionality here)

    Hopefully the various companies involved will ease the restrictions on what can or cannot be accessed on smart devices soon, as it will enable huge benefits for those with accessible requirements, as well as other users.
  • automated audio content creation as an alternative to human-voiced audio creation:
    As above, this can technically be achieved, but it cannot be delivered as a service for our content as yet. This is hopefully something that will change soon.
  • delivering other content via smart displays and Smart TVs:
    Our research shows that the content we were considering, namely interactive elements and quizzes, simply cannot be delivered onto these platforms currently as they are so locked down. The smart displays only exhibit a few traits of tablet devices, despite having similar technology built into them, and they only support a few applications. While the support for other apps and services is starting to get bigger (for example, Adobe can now push prototypes of Creative Cloud apps and content to Echo Shows) it still has a long way to go before it can handle this type of content on an everyday basis. With regard to Smart TVs in particular, it would seem that these are still locked down to media consumption apps, like Netflix and Disney+, and educational support is almost non-existent, currently.

So, despite the devices generally being technically capable, there is quite some way for the various services to go before we could utilise them without first forming a specific partnership with the individual companies. Whilst that is something that we may look into in the future, in light of the current situation with COVID-19, it looks extremely unlikely that we will be able to do something in the relatively small timeframe available. It does, however, highlight the need and potential for such services going forwards, particularly if the lockdown situation in many countries persists.


Media consumption
Smart assistant
Smart home


Senior Product Development Manager

User Experience Designer

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What is the Smart Tech project for?

The Smart Tech project was born out of the need to understand more fully the potential benefits of smart device usage on student success and to assess whether there are changes that we can make to the production and delivery of learning materials to assist in this aim.

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