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Distance Learning and Closed Captioning – The Top 3 Trends

By: Art Morgan
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Automatic Sync recently returned from the Distance Learning and Teaching Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and we were reminded of the growing importance of distance learning in higher education, along with the many ways that the distance learning landscape is changing. In March of this year the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) published the results of its annual Distance Education Survey, noting several trends in eLearning, distance learning and closed captioning. In this post  we will cover the top three trends in distance learning, and how they impact closed captioning and accessibility.

Moving to the Cloud

ITC notes that campuses have been talking about cloud computing for years, but in the past year actual deployments of cloud-based solutions have accelerated dramatically. This includes learning management systems (LMS) such as industry-leader Blackboard, open-source systems like Moodle, and newcomers like Desire2Learn, online video platforms (OVPs) such as Ensemble Video, Kaltura, and Brightcove, and hosted options for lecture capture platforms that stream recorded lectures, such as Panopto, Tegrity, Mediasite, and Echo360.

OVPs are starting to take accessibility seriously, in part spurred on by recent legislation known as the 21st Century Video Communications and Accessibility Act (CVAA), but also due to a series of lawsuits related to accessibility and ADA compliance. CVAA applies specifically to video that was originally broadcast on television, but it has broad implications for hardware and software vendors, as any IP video player must now be capable of displaying closed captions in a standardized way. This is good news for distance learning system buyers and for end users of distance learning courses, as CVAA, which starts phasing in at the end of September 2012, will eventually force video platform vendors to support a standardized set of closed caption formats (SMPT-TT, a variant of DFXP captions, is the format recommended by the FCC in the rules that it created as a result of CVAA).

In 2010 Penn State was sued because of accessibility concerns, and since that time many other higher education institutions become more serious about complying with Sections 508 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as with broader Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. If you are in the market for an LMS, OVP, lecture capture system, or other distance learning software that will be deployed “in the cloud,” ask potential vendors what steps they have taken to make it easy for you to comply with accessibility legislation.

The Rise of Mobile Devices

Smartphones, iPads, and other tablets are making distance learning opportunities even more flexible than before, but these devices bring with them new challenges in dealing with accessibility for video. Until recently, Adobe Flash was the predominant method for delivering video online. Closed Captions for Flash video are stored as separate “sidecar” files, in a format like DFXP or SRT. Flash-based video players pull the captions from the sidecar text files when needed. However, since mobile devices and tablets typically cannot run Flash, new methods for delivering video and the associated closed captions have emerged. HTML5 is one option, and there is a recommended caption format for HTML5 called WebVTT, but unfortunately most browsers and mobile devices do not yet support WebVTT.

As an alternative, Apple has defined ways to embed either subtitles or closed caption tracks in video files, allowing captions and/or subtitles to be displayed on videos played on iOS devices or iTunes. The landscape is rapidly changing, but the good news is that solutions are emerging. Automatic Sync offers a service to encode subtitles in MP4 video for iOS devices, and Zencoder can add closed captions to video for HTTP Live Streaming for iOS. Zencoder, an online transcoding service that was recently acquired by Brightcove, offers various methods of delivering closed captions for mobile, web, and connected devices.

The Evolving Learning Management System Landscape

For years Blackboard has been the dominant player in the LMS field, and according to ITC’s survey it still holds a 52 percent market share. However, compare this to eight years ago, when Blackboard and WebCT (aquired by Blackboard in 2005) held 98 percent market share. In addition, ITC indicates that 36 percent of their respondents say they are considering switching their LMS in the next few years. The bottom line is that newcomers such as Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Canvas are poised to capture market share.

LMS systems historically have not done much with video, but this is changing, due in part to huge demand from distance learners. At a minimum your LMS needs to integrate easily with your OVP and lecture capture systems. Blackboard’s building block for Kaltura is a good example of this. In the longer term, watch for even tighter integration between LMS systems and lecture capture platforms, sometimes through acquisitions. Desire2Learn now offers a lecture capture system system called Desire2Learn Capture, and Blackboard has its own Blackboard Collaborate product. Most of the leading lecture capture systems, particularly those integrated with LMSs, have ways to display closed captions, but ask potential vendors about how they handle closed captions before you buy – not all solutions are created equal.

Finally, many vendors are realizing that the benefits of making it easy to transcribe and caption video content go beyond accessibility and compliance. Video that is captioned can also be searched, and with the burgeoning amount of video content in distance learning, search is becoming increasingly important. Platforms like Mediasite, Panopto, Tegrity, and Kaltura already have search features, so look for more to come.