Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Accessibility/Universal Design at UWEC

Since my previous career was working with people who have disabilities, accessibility isn't far out of my mind. While I've been at UWEC, online courses and instructional videos have increased and it is important to consider accessibility to ensure everyone can access the content.  This blog post contains our interpretation of the law at UWEC and what my team has been doing to move toward proactive accessibility. I now have two students who work on video transcription, scanning, and other instructional design tasks for a total of 20 hours per week.  It kind of feels like we are ants moving tiny pieces of sand, but it's something!

The Law

First and foremost, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA mandates that accommodations must be provided to students with documented disabilities who request them to create equal access. It is not legally mandated that everything in a course needs to be proactively accessible, but some programs or universities may require it as a business practice.

It is ideal that materials are accessible proactively since setting up accommodations can be time consuming and accommodations for students with disabilities often benefit students who do not have disabilities too.  For instance, providing a transcript allows students who are deaf to read what is in a video and students who just prefer to read rather than watch (like me) can do so too.  Students who speak English as a second language can follow along better by reading and hearing at the same time. That's called universal design.

In addition, students are not required to disclose a disability in college, so they may not disclose until there is a problem; no problems means they don't have to be singled out. Wouldn't that be great?


Our main focus is on providing a text alternative for videos with audio information.  This is our priority because it has the potential to impact students who do not have disabilities as well, as I mentioned.  Instructors have reported back that their students have appreciated transcripts.

I first find courses/instructors/videos who seem to be good candidates. There are actually not many; I have to actively seek them out. Here are the criteria for good videos to caption/transcribe, but if an instructor feels passionately about it, I would certainly have the students work on their class.
  • Content is stable - videos will be used again.
  • Courses are at least average in size (30+ students - not regularly 10 or so).  Ideally, they are large or the course is offered frequently so that the video is viewed by many students.
  • Online courses are prioritized since literature has indicated that students with disabilities are more likely to take online courses.
  • The instructor is willing to work with me to provide this accommodation.  Usually I can just pop the transcripts into their D2L course myself, but sometimes if they need to be captioned I will have to meet with the instructor and get the transcript into YouTube. 
Here's how we do it. My students get the videos in a variety of ways: YouTube playlists, URLs, or I give them access to the content page in D2L if approved.  They usually watch the videos via VLC player because it allows them to slow down the speed so they can just type rather than listen, pause, rewind, etc.  My first student typed about 95 words per minute, so he could keep up pretty well if the video was set to 60%.  If you copy the URL, you can paste from the clipboard in VLC to open it.  

Transcript or Captions? 
When the audio/text would lose meaning without seeing what is on the screen, we caption it. This often happens in math when they write out problems while speaking.  Captions usually need to be word-for-word, with the ums, ahs, and misspeaking.  This is because the timing of the captions will be off if too much is missing.  

We try to use YouTube for captions because it will automatically sync the timing if you upload a text file, which is a big time saver.  (If you want to be entertained, click on the automatic captions that YouTube creates - wow, bad. But it usually works great to upload your own text and let it do the timing.).  The alternative is to use a program that has you click to time the captions to come up manually. Pretty time consuming. You can also let YouTube take a stab at the captions, download their file, and then edit it and re-upload.  

In the majority of cases, it is possible to include a screenshot with the text so the file stands alone and the students can read it without watching the video at all.  We clean up transcripts so that they read well.  It is easier to just provide a text transcript because it's just done when the student is done typing and reviewing.  I sometimes suggest for them to break it up into more paragraphs or add headings and if logical, they will add screenshots.  For instance, voice over power points are always text files with screenshots.  We'll make that into a PDF and then reduce the size if there were a lot of images.  

How long does it take and what does it cost? 
The first student I employed estimated that it took 10 minutes to transcribe each minute of a video if he counted file moving, reviewing it, etc.  A colleague at another university said they found paying a captioning company is about the same as paying a student, which may be the case but students are the best option for me because 1) they may have work study, which then costs my department nothing and 2) I can justify hiring students because that is a normal thing we do, whereas paying a captioning company is difficult because it is a whole different way of paying.

Captions vs Subtitles 
Just as a FYI, captions and subtitles are technically different: captions include things like noises ("door slams", etc) while subtitles are meant for different languages and don't indicate noises. If accessibility is your goal, captions should be provided. I really haven't run into this being a problem because instructional videos don't often include noises like movies do.

What Else? 

That was a lot just about transcription and captioning.  I'm going to stop this post here and then create another on vision disabilities primarily that I will link to here when it's ready. Please comment if you have other ideas or questions!

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