Closed Captions and Transcripts: Their importance in education

By: Joshua Song

As in-person classes have become less prevalent in schools due to the coronavirus, more and more accessibility issues have sprung up. Of these issues, auditory problems are one of the most prominent. Many people find transcripts useful for their personal use and use them even when they do not fully need to. Subtitles are often very helpful in clarifying the content, especially when there are a fairly large number of professional languages and words used throughout the videos. 

Other than that, there are many reasons why one might need or want closed captions or transcripts, such as because of unclear audio, unavailable audio, for hard of hearing or deaf viewers, or additional clarity in addition to the hearing element of the video. Internet connectivity issues also make clarity a greater and more active problem for a wider variety of students. Oftentimes, students have the teacher’s audio cut out during the Zoom lectures or outright get disconnected, causing the student to miss out on significant portions of the lecture and making it more difficult for students to catch up to the new information once their connection stabilizes and they can resume the Zoom lesson. 

Despite the great benefits closed captioning can bring, information about either closed captioning or transcripts of classes from the groups and people that host the classes and meetings is rarely known by the public. This is because of how incredibly difficult it is to have reliable, cheap, and accurate methods of converting the spoken word to text. Traditionally, for live closed captions or transcripts, live closed captioners such as stenographers are hired to provide transcripts, a job where people can convert speech to text at over 200 wpm and usually over 99.5% accuracy. This is in contrast to most digital pieces of software, where the accuracy usually lands around 80-90% while only some pieces of expensive and paid software land at up to 99%, with the only reason it’s that high being that the audio is very clear – something that is not always possible during online lectures. This difference might seem negligible, but in context, these accuracy statistics make a great difference with this task. 90% accuracy would mean approximately 1-2 mistakes per sentence, a 99% accuracy would mean 1 mistake per paragraph, and a 99.5% accuracy would be 1 mistake per 2 pages. This small difference in number translates to greater issues with accuracy during the transcription. 

You probably have seen lived closed captions before on T.V. as well. Since the 1970s, the FCC has mandated that all television programs have closed captioning to increase accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. For live T.V. programs, the stations often hire professional captioners so that they can provide the necessary captioning for their shows during these broadcasts. This is why the captions often appear to drag a little behind the actual speech of the speakers that are shown. 

As ideal as hiring individual live captioners to attend each class and caption would be, that is exactly what it is: ideal. The great costs and logistical issues that would be involved with hiring a live captioner for every class would be impractical and unfeasible for the school to carry out. The district should instead take steps to make captions or transcripts more easily accessible to the students attending each of the lessons. One of the ways of doing this would be to either purchase a profession program meant for live software captioning, which would solve the issue of inaccessibility during class. However, a cheaper and more interesting solution would be to record all the lessons beforehand and then make the video lessons available to the student body so that they can transcribe it in their free time, possibly offering volunteer hours as a return, which would solve two problems at once, the issue of accessibility and the issue of volunteer hour opportunities, an aspect of current school that is difficult to obtain at this time due to the coronavirus. This would be similar to the community captioning system that currently exists on platforms such as YouTube, something that unfortunately is to be removed soon. Such actions would not only increase the community engagement in the student body but also give students something to do with the free time they have.

Although there has only been a discussion about the issue of closed captioning and transcripts here, this should bring rise to a further discussion about the various accessibility issues that exist within society, and some of which have arisen due to how school and education have changed due to COVID-19. Having limited access to education because of personal struggles is something that the district and the community should work to mitigate and to make the learning process and experience as natural and smooth as possible for everyone.