Multimedia instructional materials add richness to the higher education learning experience. Videos, podcasts and animations are popular with many students, who find them to be an engaging supplement to traditional lectures.
Despite their popularity and ubiquity in modern culture, however, multimedia can present serious challenges for learners with disabilities. Perhaps the biggest challenge is related to captioning.
The law: mandate or prohibition?
Federal laws, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, require that instructional materials be accessible to learners with hearing impairments or other disabilities. But making multimedia accessible—by adding captions or subtitles, or by ensuring that media player software can be controlled from the keyboard—can be a daunting task. For one thing, multimedia exists in a wide variety of formats, each with its own quirks and methods for adding accessibility features. Another challenge is copyright law, which, strictly interpreted, prohibits any conversion, copying, editing (including adding captions), or archiving of digital media by anyone other than the copyright owner.
Many educators, as they navigate between these opposing sets of laws, feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
Multimedia and captions
Before we attempt to cut the Gordian knot of multimedia accessibility, let’s clarify what we mean by the term. Multimedia includes digital video, with its various file formats and compression types—MOV (QuickTime Movie), WMV (Windows Media Video), MP4 (MPEG 4), and others—as well as audio podcasts, animations created in Adobe Flash, and narrated slide shows built in PowerPoint, Camtasia Studio, Adobe Presenter, or other software. The term multimedia also includes DVDs, both commercial and non-commercial.
Increasingly, multimedia is moving off the desktop and into the “cloud,” so that users no longer interact with media files of any kind. Prezi presentations, which are created, stored and played from the Prezi website, are just one example of the many emerging online multimedia technologies.
Various technologies are available to assist students with hearing impairments in the classroom, such as real-time captioning, personal FM systems, and sign language interpreters when students know American Sign Language. But when it comes to videos, the best means of providing equal access is captioning. Captions, in their simplest form, are a synchronized transcript of the video. But captions can also provide rich contextual information, such as indication of background sounds, music, speaker identification, and speaker location.
Captions may be essential for a few students, but they are used and appreciated by many more. English language learners, for example, like the ability to read along with a video, as do students who possess a visual-linguistic learning style. Students listening to a recorded lecture rely on captions to understand new vocabulary or make sense of a mumbled word. And who doesn’t enjoy the ability to search for a word or phrase in the transcript of a long video or podcast?
Which captioning model?
A survey of captioning practices in higher education reveals a spectrum of philosophies and approaches. Some colleges and universities treat captioning strictly as an accommodation, to be performed on demand (if not always in a reasonable time) by the disability services office. Others recognize the benefits of captioning to a much larger group of students; these institutions take a proactive, Universal Design approach by anticipating the need for text alternatives without waiting for formal requests.
How captioning is actually performed also varies by institution. Stanford university has created an in-house fee-based captioning service, while other institutions outsource the work to companies like Automatic Sync Technologies. The University of Kentucky asks its faculty to caption their own media files, usually with the help of their students. Financial resources obviously play a big role in determining which approach will be taken at each institution and within each academic unit. The following concept map illustrates these two approaches, outsourcing the work or doing it yourself:
The do-it-yourself approach
This series of tutorials takes a do-it-yourself approach to captioning, which consists of six steps (see diagram below):
- Identify the source of the video (e.g., DVD, digital file, YouTube)
- Convert the video to the MP4 format
- Create a transcript of the video
- Import MP4 video and transcript into Camtasia Studio
- Caption the video (synchronize transcript with video)
- Save the captioned video
Determining copyright ownership
Video captioning begins with the determination of copyright ownership (see figure 3 below). If you are not the copyright owner, you should contact the owner or publisher to request a captioned version of the material. With any luck, you may not have to caption at all!
If you are the copyright owner or have permission to reproduce the video, or if your use of the video would be considered “fair use” (see Note below), you will proceed through the six steps shown in figure 2.
Figure 3: Determination of copyright ownership
To determine whether you can caption a video and to proceed, begin by asking who owns the video?
Note: The “fair use” exemption of the copyright law allows educators and artists to use portions of copyrighted works in the course of their professional duties (more information available from the U.S. Copyright Office)
Each of the step-by-step tutorials in this module has been designed to make captioning as simple as possible. The tutorials include:
- Creating a Video Transcript
- Converting DVD Video to MP4
- Converting Video Files to MP4
- Adding Captions in Camtasia Studio
- Captioning YouTube Videos
- Glossary of Multimedia Terminology
Fortunately, captioning technology has improved significantly in recent years, and many of the complicated steps that characterized the process a decade ago have been dramatically simplified. New tools continue to be developed, and these tutorials will be updated to reflect changes and improvements to the process.