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Webinar Series: Prioritizing Video Content for Captioning

By: Kevin Erler, Ph.D.
Caption Online Content with Video integration workflows

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In this webinar we cover the best practices for prioritizing your content for closed captioning, along with relevant cost/benefit factors for various approaches. We originally held this webinar in December 2016, and we are repeating it this month due to popular demand. Note: The following video should be considered an alternative to the Annotated Transcript, which contains descriptions of visual references in the media. Also, the pages listed in the Resources section are primarily text-based, and will be useful to those who do not have access to the visual content.


Annotated Video Transcript

>> Kevin Erler: Hello. Today’s webinar is called “Prioritizing Your Content for Captioning.” Most of our webinars are how-to in nature. They have specific knowledge that we are trying to relay. But this one is a bit different — it is really intended to provoke a discussion about this topic. We are going to present some of the guidelines and information we have come across over the years from interacting with different campuses, from reviewing legislation, and from talking to video producers. But ultimately the decision of choosing what content to caption and in what order is yours. Our hope is that talks like this will serve to stimulate discussion and provoke thinking about how to get the most important content first in line for captioning.

First, let me introduce myself. As you know, Art Morgan and I have been jointly presenting this webinar series, and this week, it’s my turn. My name is Kevin Erler. I am one of the co-founders of AST and I have been actively working on captioning technology and services now for over 12 years. I am an engineer by training and one of the designers of the CaptionSync system that is used by university campuses across the country for captioning.

When I sat down to put this webinar together, I decided that I really need to start with a disclaimer. Any discussion of “prioritization” might suggest that some video does not need to be captioned at all, and I really do not endorse that view! Captioning is important and really should be available for all video — particularly for educational video. There are several reasons why captioning is critical for educational content. First and foremost, it’s a matter of fairness and equality.

Captioning also addresses many disabilities and learning styles, it results ultimately in an improved educational product, and it improves comprehension, persistence, and learning outcomes for students. Really, the best mindset to approach this from is that captioning is simply part of the video production process. An integral part. Video production is actually a fairly complex process that involves many steps; captioning should just be viewed as just one of those many steps. Would you skip any of the other steps in producing your video? Perhaps leave out the audio track? Captioning should be viewed as equally important and as equally “unskippable”.

Cost is the most common argument for skipping captioning. While there is no question that captioning is expensive, it really is not disproportionate with the other costs of video production. The true cost of video is much higher than most folks think. In educational environments, most of those costs are hidden or “sunk costs” such as the acting talent — that’s the faculty member — but they are no less real. Estimates of the true cost of making an online course range from $40,000 to $200,000. Compared to these numbers, captioning is a relatively small portion of the total. Nobody calls out the cost of putting the audio track on a video because it’s considered part of the video itself — nobody has to go retrofit an existing video to add the audio track back in. If we keep thinking of captioning as a retrofit, an add-on extra process, then its cost is viewed as somehow separate from the rest of the production costs. But it shouldn’t be; captioning is just one part of the production process and one component of the total cost. The other costs are ignored as just being inherent in the process of creating video; captioning is expensive primarily because you have it called out and under a microscope.

Back in the real world, the hard, cold reality is that there is a lot of video out there and most of us are likely in a predicament where we cannot caption all of it. What do we do? How do we choose? Well, how big is the problem? Where is all this video coming from? Several studies from companies like Cisco and Kaltura show that video is used extensively in higher ed primarily because students have become accustomed to video and demand more of it. These studies show that video usage has been trending up sharply over the past few years and is expected to continue trending upwards. The amount of video on your campus is probably huge. This video is coming from instructor-generated content, from lecture capture systems, from YouTube and other sources of online video freely available, from student-generated content, or from old archives that you have around the campus.

Why can’t we caption all of this content? As I said, cost is the most commonly raised objection, but it is hardly the only barrier. One of the first barriers you run into is simply awareness. The accessibility experts on your campus aren’t even aware of all of the content out there. Also, the people producing the content aren’t even aware of all of the accessibility needs and requirements. Technology can also be a barrier. Many folks are trying out new technologies, new mechanisms for presenting video to folks on new devices. Sometimes captioning on these devices or with these presentation mechanisms is difficult.

Finally, time is also a barrier. Production processes are already complicated, and just-in-time delivery means that adding another step is often a burden. If we are going to talk about prioritizing your content, you need to first assess the content — you need to know something about the content in order to decide how it ranks.

Here are some of the sorts of things you may want to consider when you are trying to assess how to organize your content. Who is the audience for the content? Is it the general public, students, or employees? How long will the content be out there? Is it a play once and then discard, or is the content evergreen — that is, it will be played many, many times? How new is the content? Is it fresh or is it archival material? Is the audience for the content delineated, that is, do you know who they are? Do they come in through a access control system? Or are they unknown viewers? How often is the content used? Is it going to be accessed by many people over time or just by a few? And what is the primary purpose of the content? If it’s educational, is it core to the course, is it review material, or is it supplemental material? Answering these questions will help you rank the importance or the priority of the content for captioning.

From our interactions with campuses over the years, here is a typical prioritization hierarchy that we see. A request for accommodation, of course, immediately moves the content to the top of the list; if you know that you have a student depending on the captions, then that need really gets the highest level of attention. Content that’s public-facing, that’s available to all of the public, is also viewed as very high priority. You don’t know who’s going to be accessing it. Likewise, online course content that isn’t locked down to a known audience should be considered fairly high priority. You have no idea if there are folks with disabilities that are going to be accessing that content. Content that is used multiple times or for multiple terms is something that should rank pretty high as well. Archival material, as you get down into archival material, you’ll need to consider the frequency of use. Content that is accessed frequently from the archives should rate more highly. As you get into the course content, content that is considered core to the course, should rank above material that’s considered supplemental or review. And finally, old archival material that’s accessed infrequently should probably be at the bottom of the list.

You should be striving to at least get past number six on this list [course content that is considered “core”]. If you don’t get to number five [archival content that is used frequently], you could encounter legal issues.

When confronted with a prioritization list like this, some folks take it as a personal challenge to see how far down the list they can get. This path naturally leads to a confrontation with quality: if I begin to compromise on quality, I can stretch my dollar and get further down the list. “Something is better than nothing” is the argument that often gets presented. This is a fallacy, a myth, a specious argument, a mirage, a falsehood. Poor quality captions do not provide equal access for the students that need them; they do not convey the educational benefits that we presented earlier, and they do not comply with the law. Make your best effort to get as far down this priority list as you can, but do it with quality captioning — no cheating!

So how can you get more captioning done? Well, try to make the process less expensive, not by reducing the quality of the captioning, but by improving the workflow and reducing the amount of retrofit. Much like with curb-cuts, it is far less expensive to design captioning into the video production process rather than retrofitting old videos. So how do you accomplish this? Coach your media producers that captioning is part of the production process. Encourage content producers to work from a script. That way, you already have the script for captioning. Make the workflow easy. Integrate and automate as much of the workflow as you can. Make sure that your own video departments understand that it’s part of the video process — that is, stop the retrofit approach.

Finally, one last slide I want to cover today, maximize the value of your captions. Captioning offers so much more than just the compliance check box. It offers an enriched viewing experience for your users and it allows the viewer to interact and engage with the content at a much deeper level. This is what leads to those learning benefits that we discussed earlier. But you don’t get these benefits if you simply present TV style captions. Buy-in for captioning and the funding for captioning is much easier to get if you can show the value. Show the impact that captions are having on your learning outcomes, and you’ll get much more mileage out of your captioning dollar, and it’ll be much easier to attract that funding.

Finally, just a few links for more information. These links are also available on our webinar website, so please visit that site for a more complete list of extra resources.