[Just in case there is any doubt, the opinions on this blog are always my own and not the opinions of my college.]

For the last several years I’ve been watching the conversations about accessibility issues on Listservs, online groups, and blogs and I’ve been receiving emails from instructors living in California about their “video captioning situation.”  The situation is that many instructors in California believe that they are not allowed to post any material (required or supplemental) in a digital environment unless it is made fully accessible for the blind and hearing-impaired.  We could argue whether they are correct or not [personally, I think the California interpretation is a stretch], but the truth is that nobody really knows until the ADA Law [Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act] as it is interpreted in California is challenged in the legal system.  Well, now it appears that North Carolina may be trying to endorse the same sort of “mandate for accessibility” of digital materials too and this has reopened this issue.  It is an issue that has been described by a colleague of mine at another college as the “elephant in the room.”

Many of us want to make our lessons and lectures available to students outside of class.  The question … do you have to caption all the videos when you do this?  Ideally, software would exist to auto-caption these videos quickly and easily.  And for other subjects (not so technical in nature) there are software programs that work.  However, the spoken language in math videos have a highly specialized vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure – the spoken word is halting in nature as steps are described (mostly by us as we read the handwritten work aloud).  Update: [If you’ve never seen a math screencast, here are two that you can take a look at. The first one is on Volumes of Rotation and was recorded live in a classroom mostly by students.  The second one is on Related Rates, the infamous Searchlight problem, and was recorded by me live in the classroom.]

In April (2011) I tried (as I do every year) to find a way to use the latest and greatest auto-captioning software to auto-caption a video.  I trained the software for about two hours before making my attempt at auto-captioning.  Here’s the transcript from a selection of the video.  You’ll have to trust me that it is a representative selection:

Bel-called I love the nets that would define LCE and multiply by a humble flood to lift the LDC for the factions here for the model involve five and 10 of the one that looks like a cannibal one planned left flood and 10/1 plan to lift the thrill of flying if flexible five in the late flood attack for what you love a little bit of leverage to live my life where the action of them left to get rid of action for a much simpler terms of the lid on  …

Can you even tell what class I was teaching?

Now, before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that if I have a student in my class who has a serious visual or hearing disability, I would work with my school to be sure that all required materials for that semester were appropriately accessible.  That may or may not mean captioning of videos.  A deaf student may find it hard to simultaneously process the captioning script and the handwritten work of the instructor at the same time (studies about the brain have shown that most of us have only one language-input channel, see The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, by Torkel Klingberg for an overview of multitasking research). As for visually-impaired students, they may prefer raised line graphs (see the Thermo-pen for an example of how to do this)  to audio descriptions of diagrams and images.  An instructor could go through a lot of extra work to caption every video and describe every image only to find that the future student with a disability would prefer something else.

Most instructors will gladly work with their college support staff to make sure that all their students have the equivalent opportunity to learn in their courses.  But many math instructors in California (and now NC) do not believe that is what is being asked of them.  They are being told by their ADA compliance officers that they have to make anything that they use in digital form accessible for every type of disability, even if the material is merely supplemental (like the mention of a video that shows math being used in the real world, or a recorded version of a class that meets face-to-face every day).  And this “mandatory compliance” for video captioning is making the rest of us nervous.

Here’s where this gets interesting.  If it’s non-digital material … like handwriting on a whiteboard in a live class, or audio lecture (by your mouth) in a face-to-face classroom, there is no requirement that it be made accessible unless there is student with an impairment in the class.  So if you teach like we taught 100 years ago, there are no extra demands on your time.  If you teach in California and make any attempt to use (gasp) digital material, you’ve just seen all your free time get sucked down a giant hole with the stamp of “mandatory accessibility.”

To illustrate just how ridiculous this “mandatory accessibility is, consider the following scenarios :

Situation A: The instructor teaches a 4-credit math class and uses traditional lectures  in a face-to-face class using a chalkboard.  For out-of-class help, they tell the students to read the textbook.  The instructor provides the student with zero additional resources.  If a blind student takes the class, the college will have to provide the braille copy of the book.  If a hearing-impaired student takes the class, the college will have to provide a sign-language interpreter.  So the instructor is off the hook for any “extra” work other than their exams accessible, and they only have to do this if a visually-impaired student takes the class.

Situation B: The  instructor teaches a 4-credit hour math class and gives the exact same lectures as in Situation A, and does them live in class, but uses a Tablet PC (instead of a chalkboard) and records the lectures so that they will be available outside of class.  The instructor is careful in class to say most of what she writes and to write most of what she says.  The instructor takes 4 extra hours a week to produce and share these videos online because they want their students to be able to have extra help at home.  She does not get paid to do this extra video production, but they feel it is important.  Who benefits?

  • Students with no disabilities are able to watch and listen to the recording from the live classroom.
  • Students with a hearing impairment are able to watch and re-watch the recording (step-by-step) and most of what is said is written down.
  • Students with a visual impairment are able to listen and re-listen to the recording (step-by-step) and most of what is written down is also said aloud.
  • Students with ADHD will have the opportunity to pick up things they may have missed in class.
  • Students who work the night shift and are really tired at their 8am class will have a chance to rewatch the lessons after they wake up in the evening.
  • Students who have learning disabilities will be able to go back to anything they didn’t understand and talk it over with their tutor.
  • ESL Students will be able to listen and re-listen to vocabulary that was hard for them to understand.  Etc, etc.

In Situation B, the college still might need to provide a sign-language interpreter if a student with a hearing impairment took the course, since the course is being recorded in a live classroom.  One key here is that video materials being shared by the instructor are not required, they are supplemental (and duplicate the in-class experience) and in fact, all the students in the class benefit in some way from the digital materials, though some more than others.

Situation C: Same as Situation B except the state imposes a law that says that all video put up digitally by an instructor must be closed-captioned and any images used in the video must be described in great detail for the visually impaired.  This instructor is giving the exact same lectures as Instructors A and B, but here’s what they have to do now:

  • Spend 8 hours rewatching the 4 hours of videos to write a captioning script [see note at bottom before you comment that there is software that can do this for you]* and make sure to note whenever a diagram or picture of any kind is used.  An alternative is for the instructor to pay to have the videos transcribed.
  • For 2 more hours, use editing software to add additional audio narrative of any diagrams or pictures they used in their lecture (and don’t forget the captioning script for those).  In math classes there can be a LOT of diagrams, so don’t wave this away.
  • Spend 4 hours (if you’re really good it will only take 4 hours) syncing the captioning script to the video/audio (it will only take 4 hours if they make no mistakes).
  • Spend 6 hours producing the videos, which now take more time than in Situation B, because the videos are more complex.

Total time? 20 hours per week after teaching the classes.   Here are the additional benefits of this extra work:

  • Students with a hearing impairment will see an exact transcript of what was said instead of the approximate handwritten one.
  • ESL students will be able to see the all the words the instructor is saying written out (although in reality, most new vocabulary words were probably already written out in the lecture).
  • Vision-impaired students will get a more-detailed description of graphs and diagrams.
  • Students who don’t want to turn on the sound on their digital device (maybe they are watching the lecture in one of their other classes?) can use the captions to see exactly what is being said.

The problem is that faced with the reality of teaching today, Situation C is just not feasible while carrying a 4-6 class per-semester teaching load (as most community college instructors do).  In Situation C, a 4-credit course has just become a 24-hour per week load of work (and we never even included prep time or grading time in that tally).  When faced with Situation C, most instructors, including myself, would just say “screw it” and remove ALL extra help in digital formats from their courses.  This hurts all of their students.  ALL of them.  The law intended to create equal learning opportunity actually causes all the students to have less access to learning materials.

If we’re going to require 100% accessibility of digital materials when the material is just supplementary and when there is not necessarily a student in the class who requires it, then I say we also provide 100% accessibility in all face-to-face lecture-only classes too.  Require colleges to provide a sign-language interpreter and a  transcription service for all live lectures whether it’s needed or not.  And really, why stop there … how about office hours, discussion boards where students post images, synchronous communication platforms, or tutoring services? Just think of all the jobs we could create with such laws!  [You realize that whole paragraph was sarcasm, right?]

Personally, If I worked in California, and this “mandatory captioning” was the stance taken by my college’s ADA compliance officer, I would remove all digital materials from my college course management system and begin sharing all non-copyrighted materials (materials of my own creation) on the public web (YouTube or Vimeo) or on a personal web domain.  I would have to hope that students would wander on to my site (or some other math teacher’s sites) to find help outside of class.  The truth is that instructors do not have to share any digital materials.  For most of us, there is nothing in our contracts that says we have to provide anything but a syllabus as part of our job.  Many of us choose to take a good portion of our free time to make these extra digital videos of our classes available to students.  When faced with it taking five times as long, there are very few instructors who would still do it.

Meanwhile, here is a sane response to the question: Do I have to caption my math videos? [aka How do I tame this elephant in the room?]  I asked Kel Smith, who is working on writing a book called Digital Outcasts and is an expert on accessibility issues.  Here is his sane response: “The ADA laws are written with equivalency in mind.  A student with a disability must be provided the same opportunity for educational advancement as those without a disability.”

Ask yourself, are there a variety of ways provided to learn this material?  I try to provide a variety of ways for a student to learn a topic to suit a variety of learning styles: video, text, in-person lessons, in-person discussion, and interactive online applets.  Ask yourself whether your college can quickly make a reasonable accommodation to ensure that a disabled student does have the same opportunity to learn the material as another student?

Here are some suggestions for what I would think are reasonable accommodations for hearing-impaired students [disclaimer: I am no expert on ADA Compliance]:

  • The college could provide the student with a sign-language interpreter to watch the instructor provided videos with them and sign them as they are watched.
  • The instructor can provide an alternative set of videos for the same material that does have captioning (see Hippocampus or Khan Academy who both provide captioned math videos)
  • The college could harness the power of idle student workers to quickly “crowdsource” the creation of transcripts for videos that are used in a class where there is a hearing-impaired student.

I hope that helps some of you who are facing the math video captioning issue to deal with the elephant in the room.  And if you live in California, well … maybe you need to hope someone sues over this law soon so that a judge can interpret what the law actually means.