Add a Caption and Call It Accessible? Not so Fast!

By Alan Girelli

NEJHE on Models that Will Change Higher Ed Forever

MOOCs claim to make education accessible to everyone, but institutions offering MOOCs have yet to define best practices for accessible design. For many, universal design efforts end when course video material has been captioned. Captioning is important, but the idea that you can just caption course video and call a MOOC accessible belongs on the cutting-room floor.

Captioning instructional videos and providing access to long-form transcripts of video material are two important accommodations for learners who are deaf or have auditory impairments, but of equal importance, provide a universal design benefit to all learners. Reading is a key learning strategy for most of us, and access to written material presented in an uncluttered format proves essential for many learners with cognitive impairments. A MOOC that UMass Boston planned to launch on March 25 is designed within a tool that evaluates students’ learning strategies, then systematically delivers content customized to each student’s individual learning patterns.

This is a unique example of the attempt to provide high-level customization of instruction within MOOC design and is out of reach for most institutions. Yet we should all be working toward developing accessibility standards for MOOC instruction. That effort will require paying attention to advice from universal design specialists. I’m blessed to have such a colleague in my work world. I am one member of a team of instructional designers and technologists working in the online program of the College of Advancing and Professional Studies at UMass Boston. Recently, the Academic Technology Coordinator from the UMB Ross Center for Disability Services, Valerie Claire Haven, introduced me to the technique for transliterating visuals, included in course video content, into analogous auditory information. The technique is called “descriptive captioning.” I believe it should become a standard practice in MOOC universal design.

It’s easy to remain unaware of important accessibility strategies like descriptive captioning because universal design techniques keep evolving. As course designers, we find most new accessibility strategies so straightforward, once we catch on to the central ideas, we often don’t bother to spread the word; we just assume we were the only one who didn’t get it. In the case of descriptive captioning—audio annotation of graphical material—it shouldn’t have taken my colleague, Valerie, several days to get me up to speed. A year ago Valerie and I presented at a conference in Las Vegas and one evening we attended a showing of Blue Man Group. I’d seen the Boston show several times, but Valerie had never been. As it happens, Valerie is blind.

Anyone who has seen Blue Man knows it is a very visually oriented show, with lots of sight gags, such as the scenes involving marshmallow throwing and the gyrating of Hostess Twinkies. As I often do when with Valerie, I began to provide her with a running narrative of what I was seeing, not aware of how challenging (and exciting) that process would be. As she often does, Valerie began providing me with insights picked up from what she was hearing and otherwise sensing and cued me to things I always had missed in the show. We were seated among a group of non-native speakers of English, who soon became engaged in listening to Valerie’s observations of the show and to my descriptive captioning of the visuals. At first, Valerie and I were whispering to one another, but the people around us kept leaning forward to hear our dialogue so we eventually just talked throughout the show in normal (albeit quiet) voices. I think the foreign visitors sitting around us understood the performance better because of the dialogue Valerie and I had shared. I certainly learned incredible new things about Blue Man that evening.

This experience should have taught me the value of descriptive captioning. Somehow though, I didn’t take the lesson to heart. Since no one had put a name to the technique nor shown me examples of description captioning, I imagined (as most do) that traditional captioning by itself counts as comprehensive universal design. Now I’ve left that idea on the cutting-room floor, though, thanks again to Valerie. She recently consulted to the UMass Boston MOOC production team I’m leading. As a result, we’ve adopted the complimentary technique of descriptive captioning to accompany traditional captioning. In any video segments of our MOOCs that include visuals not overtly clear from the narrative, we’ll be adding descriptive captions to allow full understanding of context for learners who are blind or visually impaired.

Valerie suggests a free course on descriptive captioning for persons who are visually impaired being offered by Fractured University. One of her favorite examples of descriptive captioning was produced by TheDOITCenter. Instructional videos detailing description techniques can also be viewed at WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media.

At UMass Boston, I am lucky to have constant access to expert advice on universal design. I get sound advice even when I don’t know the questions to ask. But MOOC designers without this advantage need to make special efforts to seek the guidance of accessibility specialists, so we can make good on our claim that MOOCs make education accessible to everyone.

Alan Girelli is director of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in eLearning at the College of Advancing and Professional Studies, UMass Boston.




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