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You are reading: Mainstreaming Captions for Online Lectures in Higher Education in Australia

Alternative Approaches to Engaging with Video Content

Mike Kent, Katie Ellis, Gwyneth Peaty, Natalie Latter and Kathryn Locke
Curtin University

Executive Summary

Captions can be defined as the text version of speech and other sound in traditional audio visual media such as films, television, DVDs and online videos. Captions are usually provided to enhance audio content and are typically recognised as benefitting two main groups – people with hearing or learning difficulties and those who come from a non-English speaking background (NESB).

Universities worldwide are also beginning to see benefits in captioning in different contexts as they increasingly adopt online modes of delivery, particularly online recorded lectures. The provision of captions on recorded lectures is a relatively new technology at Curtin University (Curtin), only being introduced in 2012. However, in a worldwide context, universities in the US have been encouraged to caption their online lecture content since 2010 following the introduction of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) or risk legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA). While current legislation in Australia is not so demanding, it is perhaps only a matter of time before we follow the more inclusive American model.

There is therefore a need to explore the opportunities captions could represent in the context of online recorded lectures, and how this could benefit all students who are expected to engage with lecture content, not just those within the above two groups. These might include students with disabilities, older students, those with diverse learning styles, and students who experience difficulty accessing online videos for reasons related to issues with their environment (noise) or with technology (connectivity or equipment). Additionally, captioned video has the potential to significantly improve digital archival of files by indexing the full text, thereby facilitating searching and retrieving lecture content for all students.

Recorded lecture technologies currently in use within Australia are already designed to support captions. For example, the lecture recording platform in use at Curtin – Echo360 – has inbuilt software allowing for the addition of broadcast quality captions as well as full transcripts. The lecture recordings can be supplemented by several tools which enable captions to be easily integrated and accessed. There is also flexibility in the method of presentation – depending on viewer preference, captions can be viewed either in a separate window or overlayed on the video screen; toggling between these modes is as simple as clicking a button. Other features of Echo360 designed to assist learners with revision and note taking include downloadable transcripts, bookmarking and searchable content – students are able to search for keywords in both the captions and the lecture slides. It is important to note that none of these elements require additional development from educators as they are already integrated within Echo360’s lecture recording technology. The mainstream adoption of captions and transcripts would therefore be a relatively simple shift.

This report details findings of Curtin’s Teaching Excellence and Development Fund (TEDF) funded project Alternative Approaches to Engaging with Video Content. The project sought to determine the usefulness of captioned recorded lectures as a mainstream learning tool for a range of stakeholders. In addition to reviewing relevant university, national and international literature and policies, the project surveyed 56 students enrolled in three key units in the Internet Communications degree program in which captions had been mainstreamed for the purpose of the project.

The research attempted to answer the following questions:

  • Do students as a diverse population benefit from personalised learning approaches, and accommodations designed to assist students with disabilities?
  • Do these approaches benefit the entire student cohort, and how do all students utilise captioned lectures as part of a personalised approach to learning?

This report has three parts. Part 1 reports on a comprehensive literature review of the use of captioning in higher education conducted as part of this study. Material was sourced through library and web searches using combinations of the search terms caption, transcript, lecture and education. Reference lists from relevant publications were also reviewed for additional sources. The literature review identified two key areas of prior research – the benefits of captioned online lectures for ‘at risk’ students (such as students with disabilities, including hearing, cognitive and learning disabilities, NESB students and mature aged students) and the benefits to the entire student cohort (particularly with regards to acknowledging diverse learning styles and enhancing access to technology).

Part 2 presents an analysis of policies regarding online and recorded lectures and the provision of captioning services and covers Federal legislation, internal Curtin policies regarding disability access, and policies offered by external partners. In Australia, while lectures are not subject to the entertainment-related captioning requirements of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA), universities are bound by the accessibility requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005. However, following changing international cultural sentiment around the mandated provision of captions for online on demand videos services in the entertainment arena (see Ellis, Kent, Locke and Merchant, 2016 regarding Netflix’s appeal against the push to caption its catalogue), activists have also initiated disability discrimination complaints against American institutions Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who do not currently caption their video lectures (Lewin, 2015). Universities are therefore becoming the next target in the ongoing debate as to whether the internet – and specifically online lectures – constitutes a place of public accommodation. Curtin acknowledges this by offering captions on all of their Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) in line with US legislation, yet to date they have not followed suit with regards to their more ‘traditional’ online lectures.

Part 3 of the report is concerned with the findings of and offers discussion on the results of the survey and interview stages of this research with the 56 students who participated in the project. These students were enrolled in three units which trialled mainstreaming captions in 2015 and 2016. Insights were gained into both how students actually used the captions and how they anticipated using them in the future should Curtin embrace them as a mainstream approach. The survey data were triangulated with five follow-up interviews with students, teaching staff and support staff such as disability support officers. In summarising the findings, in addition to the ‘expected’ benefits to disabled and NESB students, there were three further benefits noted:

  • Lecture captions are also beneficial to students without disabilities, assisting them to absorb and review educational materials.
  • A very high level of engagement with the Echo360 lecture system was reported – over 90% of students accessed online lectures and the majority (over 70%) viewed them once or more per week.
  • Captions assist all students make use of the recorded materials, for example the additional features of Echo360 such as the search function and downloadable transcripts.

If made available, students will utilise captions as part of a personalised approach to learning. Captions assist students undertake revision of course content, either via keyword searches or complete transcripts. Students who utilise captions as part of revision frequently re-engage with course content. However, the approach taken to the provision of captions in the Australian higher education sector continues to be located as a disability issue whereby specific students must request their availability as part of an access plan via dedicated disability offices. We therefore recommend the Australian university sector expand the use of captions from a purely assistive technology for people with disabilities to a mainstream instructional technology.

Read the full report here.

Kent, M., Ellis, K., Peaty, G., Latter, N. & Locke, K. (2017). Mainstreaming Captions for Online Lectures in Higher Education in Australia: Alternative approaches to engaging with video content. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.