Monday, February 20, 2012

CART Problem Solving: Classroom Videos

CART Problem Solving Series

Sitting Apart
Handling Slides
Classroom Videos
Superscript and Subscript
Schlepping Gear
Late Hours
Expensive Machines
Communicating Sans Steno
Cash Flow
Test Nerves
Speech Recognition, Part I
Speech Recognition, Part II
Speech Recognition, Part III
Speech Recognition, Part IV

Wow, I only have 15 minutes before midnight. Well, I hope you guys will forgive me if today's weekly CART problem goes a bit over the Monday deadline. Three of my four schools were closed today, but one was still open, so I CARTed one three-hour class; prepped a play script for a theater captioning colleague; helped another colleague test his StreamText setup (for That Keith Wann Show this Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. EST, which he'll be captioning because I'll be presenting a CEU lecture on what ASL Interpreters should know about CART); completed my last bout in the Typeracer Championship; answered some Plover email; and emailed a first-time client with details about tomorrow's gig. Then, after this blog post, I just have to transcribe a 37-minute ophthalmology interview, and then I can do the dishes and go to bed. Gotta be up at 7:00 tomorrow for a morning class. Phew! It's been a lovely day, but a busy one. Okay, on to the problem.

CART PROBLEM:Videos shown in class don't always have captions.

This is a complex problem, with a variety of solutions. Here are some of the ways I deal with the various options this problem presents; if you have additional solutions, please feel free to add them in the comments.

* If the professor is playing a DVD, it's usually easy to solve. If it's an unscheduled video, just discreetly approach them and ask them to turn on the captions or subtitles. Most (though not all) commercial DVDs offer this as an option. Of course, it's best if you can ask the professor at the beginning of the semester whether they're planning to show any videos; that way they can know to turn the captions on without having to be asked at the beginning of the class in question, which can make the deaf student feel conspicuous. They might also be able to bring in the captioned DVD as opposed to just using a ripped disc image hosted on the university's server (which usually won't have the caption code embedded), or they might be able to get a DVD from the college's media library rather than using an old uncaptioned VHS copy. Not all professors are knowledgeable about how captions work, so it's best if you can have a brief but informative conversation well in advance about their best options for locating captioned versions of the media they're planning to show.

* If the professor is playing a web video rather than a DVD, it might have captions too, though unfortunately this is less likely than a DVD version. If it's a TED talk, you're in luck -- virtually all of their videos are captioned. If it's a YouTube video, it's definitely worth checking to see if someone's captioned it, but beware of using the "autocaption" feature. It's almost always much more confusing than it is helpful. I've got more information on YouTube's autocaptions here.

* If the professor schedules an otherwise uncaptioned web video in advance or assigns it as homework, you can use Universal Subtitles to caption it in offline, like I did with a video assigned in a Psychology class last fall. Then you can just give the URL to the student (if the video was assigned for homework) or to the professor (if the video is going to be shown in class). This is a fantastic option as long as the video is hosted on YouTube, Vimeo,, or USTREAM. If it isn't, though, you might be out of luck. And one unfortunate downside to Universal Subtitles is that when the video is maximized the subtitles disappear, so some professors might be a bit put out by having to display their video in a window. I asked them to support fullscreen videos last year, but so far no luck. Maybe someday.

* If the video was originally broadcast on PBS, there's a good chance that even if the video isn't captioned, the transcript might be available online. The other day a professor announced at the beginning of class that he would be showing a Frontline documentary for most of the session, and a quick Google search on my phone revealed that the transcript was available online. I ran and plugged in my 4G modem and external keyboard, brought up the transcript, and blew up the browser window's font size for easy legibility. Then I was able to sit back for most of the class, my external qwerty keyboard resting in my lap while my laptop remained on top of its tripod in front of the student. All I had to do was follow along with the soundtrack and hit "page down" at regular intervals. Not quite as good as captions, of course. Since the words weren't on the screen, the student was forced to glance back and forth between the video and the laptop screen, which made the process a bit more awkward than it could have been. Still, for a spur-of-the-moment solution, it worked quite well.

*Finally, if worse comes to worst, and none of the other options are available, you might just have to CART the video. This is less than ideal for a number of reasons, though I'm sorry to say it's probably the option I wind up using most often, just because professors are sometimes hard to pin down in terms of what they'll be showing throughout the semester, and it can be very difficult to get any advance notice, much less specific details of what video they'll be showing when. So when I have to, I just write what I hear, as if it were anything else spoken in the classroom. As with the previous solution, this forces students to constantly look back and forth between the video screen and the laptop screen, which can cause eyestrain and frustration.

Additionally, since I won't have had time to put in speaker designations, I'm basically only able to indicate each new speaker with chevrons, like this:

>> And then I said to him...

as opposed to this:

QUEEN ELIZABETH: And then I said to him...

If there's a lot of voice-over narration or offscreen dialogue, this can get somewhat confusing. Also, some videos involve extremely rapid rates of speech. Ordinary speech tends to contain regular pauses; when a speaker stops to think, breathe, or consult their notes, that gives CART providers a little wiggle room to define unfamiliar terminology in our dictionaries or finish writing the last few trailing words, so that we're able to jump right in when the speaker starts again. When people read from a book or script, or when a video is edited to be constantly snappy and fast-paced, those breaths and pauses are cut out, and we're forced to ramp up our speed accordingly, which means there's less time to correct any errors that might slip through. Consequently, it's always better to use pre-prepared captions if at all possible. When they're not an option, it's just you and your machine. If the video is available online or in the University's library, explain to your student that you'll do your very best to get everything on the fly, but if a few words wind up slipping past you, you'll fill in the blanks when you're editing the transcript later that day. Most students are pretty understanding. Don't be offended if they choose to focus on the video screen rather than the laptop screen during class; they might be absorbing the visuals while using their residual hearing to get a sense of the soundtrack, which they'll fill in more completely afterwards using your transcript.

Have I missed anything? Have you run up against an entirely different use of classroom video? I'm curious to hear how other people handle these problems. I've heard that some universities actually have staff dedicated to captioning videos used by professors, but none of the universities I've worked for have provided that service. I'm hoping someday to offer my clients a pair of caption glasses, so that when I'm forced to CART a video in class they won't have to keep changing their focus from the laptop screen to the video screen; the captions will just be superimposed on the moving image. But as far as I can tell, those glasses aren't commercially available for individual CART providers yet. Someday soon, I'm hoping. In the mean time, a varied assortment of more or less workable solutions to a perennial academic problem. Feel free to add your own.


  1. Mirabai,

    As usual, you did an excellent job of summing up the problem and your solutions. I love the idea of the glasses. Just think if they took a realtime input. Each on-site CART provider could carry a pair for the consumers. :)

    I have a few university clients that call us on a regular basis to caption entire groups of videos for professors to use in online courses or as supplements to their on-site courses. We caption all the videos and provide a web page that contains all the links to the captioned versions of the videos. Then the student just bookmarks that page and uses it, instead of the "official" video page. It would be better if the "official" version of the videos were captioned for all the students, but it seems that sometimes that just takes too long and involves too many people - A/V folks, website folks to provide the videos, change the links, etc. If we wait for them, we may miss deadlines. So we just starting doing it ourselves in some instances.

    Good article.

    Tanya Ward English

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