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Captions are to Education what Supertitles are to Opera

By: Art Morgan

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This will be a relatively short post.  It’s too complicated to explain in 280 characters, but not complex enough to justify one of my typical 750 – 1000 word blog posts. Plus it’s Sunday, and I should have better things to do.

This morning I heard a fascinating story on NPR about the history of opera supertitles.  Supertitles are to opera what subtitles are to foreign films; they are a simultaneous translation of what’s being sung during an opera performance. They are typically projected above the stage, but in some cases they are displayed on a screen in the back of the seat in front of you.  Opera supertitles started 35 years ago as a experiment by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, but when they tried them in the U.S. some critics were initially less than impressed.  “They called it ‘the plague from Canada’,” recalls Lotfi Mansouri, the Canadian Opera Company’s artistic director. But Mansouri persisted, because he realized that supertitles broke down a language barrier and increased audience engagement.

Opera viewers could now understand what was happening on stage in realtime, without having to study the story before attending.  And opera singers also loved supertitles, because they now were getting responses from the audience to the moments of tragedy or comedy contained in the Italian, German, or French lyrics.  “They were getting feedback they never got before from the audience, because the audience, of course, understood,” says Sonya Friedman, another pioneer in the field of opera supertitles. Opera supertitles are now an expected part of the opera experience across the United States.

The story was fascinating to me because the parallels between opera supertitles and closed captions and audio description in the field of education are striking. When AST began introducing affordable closed captioning to educational organizations 14 years ago, reactions were mixed. Some thought captions were unnecessary, except as an accommodation for a deaf or hard of hearing student. Some thought captions were distracting.  Shouldn’t the viewer be focusing on what the instructor is saying, not on written captions? Others thought transcripts “dumbed down” the content.  If learners could skim through a transcript of the lecture, will they no longer watch the whole video?

What these initial reactions missed is the fact that when learners are provided with more representations of the educational content, and more ways to engage with the content, they understand more, and learn more.  Like the opera singer who is pleasantly surprised when his audience suddenly understands and reacts to the subtle comedy in his German aria, a professor may be pleasantly surprised when her students start understanding and retaining more of what she outlines in her educational videos, thanks to closed captions, transcripts, and audio description.

There’s another interesting parallel.  AST was founded by two Canadian engineers who had a pioneering vision about how to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable in the United States.  While it would be hyperbole to claim that Americans initially called AST’s captions “the plague from Canada,” it does reinforce the point that when we have ideas about how to make education accessible to broader audiences, we need to be persistent in spreading our vision.  Never underestimate the ability of learners from diverse backgrounds to learn, if you give them the right tools.

We now resume our usual Sunday programming, but as always we welcome your thoughts on how to spread our shared vision of high-quality, accessible, affordable, education for all.