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Higher ed takes action on captions

How colleges are making live captioning work—both in the classroom and at campus events
University Business, October 2017
  • SEEN IF NOT HEARD—At Northern Arizona University commencements, deaf or hard-of-hearing graduates or guests can keep up with the action as captions appear on the big screen.
  • IN-CLASS ASSISTANCE—Even when live captioning is available to students taking a course, additional accommodation options may still be helpful. At Morehead State University and other institutions, for example, peer note-takers are available.

Live interpreters had long been the gold standard for colleges committed to having the hearing-impaired participate in campus activities. From classes to sporting events to guest lectures, theatre performances and commencement, American Sign Language interpreters were often on stage, in front of class or down on the sidelines.

Now technology offers additional options for live events that are more accessible to larger numbers of people and often more cost-effective.

Having a solution—whether traditional or tech-based—is often a must-do and certainly a should-do.


Sidebar: Breaking down the roadblocks to live captioning


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires institutions that receive federal funding to ensure equal opportunities for the hearing-impaired, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 specifies that all public colleges and universities offer these students equal access to all on-campus activities.

Providing this support impacts the approximately 136,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing students enrolled in higher ed (as of 2008), according to a National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

There are approximately three hard-of-hearing students for every one deaf student, notes the publication Hard of Hearing Students in Postsecondary Settings: A Guide for Service Providers (U.S. Department of Education and the Postsecondary Education Consortium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; 2007).


Sidebar: Cost-effective alternative


Thinking beyond students to their families and community members attending campus events, consider one more statistic: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 15 percent of American adults suffer from some level of hearing loss.

The problem with using ASL as a blanket solution for the hearing-impaired is that many hard-of-hearing students don’t know sign language. Now hearing-impaired students can see real-time captioning of spoken events.

Also referred to as live captioning, the process requires a microphone placed in front of the person speaking, a human captionist who is in the room or listening remotely, an internet connection, and a computer-based platform that shows a student what the captionist is typing in real time.

The technology, often used in conjunction with low-tech solutions, provides a huge accessibility boost—both in the classroom and out across campus.

Real-time captioning in the classroom

While sign language interpreters help ensure deaf students understand what’s being shared in the classroom, hard-of-hearing students need a different form of support. Visual aids—such as notes taken during class, transcripts and captioning services—aid their learning.


Sidebar: Quality control in captions


Live captioning differs from closed captioning in that the latter is transcribed after an event and added over the top of a recorded program.

The two main options are:

1. Live captioning, on-site. Widely adopted in the classroom, live captioning provides a way for students to pay attention to the professor and glance at a laptop screen to confirm their understanding of what was said. Using a chat window, students can ask the captionist questions for clarification.

Communication Access Realtime Translation, commonly known as CART (see “Quality control in captions”), is the latest in live captioning. It provides exact, word-for-word transcription on computer screens or mobile devices, such as iPads or smartphones, for students and audience members.

On-site captionists sit in class alongside other students, typing exactly what the professor and fellow students say. Because a captionist in class can pick up on questions asked by students, or other surrounding discussions, it is often the preferred solution.

Clemson University is unique in that it employs five captionists to serve hearing-impaired students on its South Carolina campus. The on-site captionists are assigned to classrooms and events, supplemented with a remote captionist as needed.

However, since Wi-Fi service is required for live captioning, universities such as Clemson fall back on recording events and later transcribing them when a class meets somewhere that Wi-Fi is not available—such as a barn, a farm or off-site locations.

2. Remote live captioning. When a captionist cannot can’t be there in person, many colleges rely on off-site captionists who listen via a microphone placed near the professor. They type what they hear into a platform such as StreamText, which the student can view on a laptop.

While speech recognition software programs do exist, the software has not advanced enough yet to meet the standards for accuracy, says Jamie Axelrod, director of disability resources at Northern Arizona University. In other words, it can’t be used for captioning.

Automated software used to create speech-to-text caption files that go with source video, such as those used in online coursework, is a step in the right direction—but the technology requires human involvement to review and edit the captions for accuracy.

At most universities, students first request the use of a captionist through the office of disability services on campus. The disability services office then coordinates with its captioning service to ensure a live or remote captionist is assigned for a particular class, at specified days and times.

The student is assigned a microphone to give the professor and logs into the speech-to-text system to view the captionist’s work.

Live captioning out on campus

What works well in the classroom for real-time captions doesn’t always translate to larger venues or events. While the process for requesting captioning is generally the same, determining where captions will be shown can be more of a challenge.

For larger events, many universities automatically make arrangements to have sign language interpreters on hand, and/or captioning done, to serve the larger community. The institution assumes a percentage of the audience will be deaf or hard of hearing and work to ensure they’ll be able to participate to the same degree as those in the audience who can hear.

Universities that caption events rely on existing resources to display the captioning, such as on Jumbotrons in basketball arenas and scoreboards in football stadiums.

When such devices are not available, the captioning gets trickier. North Dakota State University uses a manual captioning system at its commencement, says Registrar Rhonda Kitch. To ensure the name of each graduate matches the person walking across the stage, the university uses a reader header—a card with the graduate’s name and degree on it.

As the graduate reaches the stage, a reader scans the card so that the information is captioned on the large screen as their name is being read. This ensures accuracy, Kitch explains.

NameCoach, a web application that allows students to record their own names for correct pronunciation and type in their names for correct spelling, is used at some commencements to replace name cards.

NameCoach is in the process of being integrated with GradScan software from LifeTouch so the name appears on the screen at the moment the student walks across the stage.

At Clemson’s commencement and convocation, the Jumbotron is used for on-screen captioning, as well as a picture-in-picture view of a sign-language interpreter. Through the use of a microphone on stage, a captionist located in the university’s broadcast services department types what is being said and displays it on the Jumbotron.

At football games, captioning of the broadcast is provided on the thin video strip that encircles the stadium.

The University of Nebraska uses a similar approach for its graduation ceremonies, with two-line captions appearing on the big screen in the basketball arena.

In the works is a test of the app iCap Mobile, says Scott Guthrie, broadcasting engineer. With this app, text appears on a mobile device’s browser page, which allows hearing impaired students, sports fans and even attendees to watch what’s going on and check in for commentary.

At events where there is no place for captions to appear, such as the doctoral hooding ceremony at Clemson, the university gives the audience a web address to view live captioning, with the message, “If you’d like to follow along on your device, it will be captioned.”

While the solution may depend on the event and the venue, remember this: Working out challenges so the audience—from the student in class to the proud parent at graduation—can participate fully is ensuring equal opportunities for all.


Marcia Layton Turner is a Rochester, New York-based writer.

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