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Ed-tech leaders push closed captioning, compliance monitoring

Assistive technology experts say higher-education officials have taken a closer look at such online tools in recent years, in part because of laws that require better access.

Teaming up with companies that provide transcribers or software that scans recorded lectures and provides transcription, colleges and universities are increasingly looking for new, inexpensive ways to eliminate barriers for students with disabilities in the lecture hall … or those who use a computer to access instruction.

Assistive technology experts say higher-education officials have taken a closer look at such online tools in recent years, largely because the costs of these technologies have dropped precipitously since the early 2000s. The threat of lawsuits for failing to comply with accessibility laws, and the rise of mobile devices that have removed some of the stigma attached to assistive technology programs, also are factors.

Providing accessible technology that translates lectures from speech to text and makes campus websites readable for everyone has been a welcomed development for many students with disabilities, said Jim Stachowiak, associate director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research.

“A lot of college students want to give it a try for themselves before they ask for any help and have that stigma attached to them,” Stachowiak said, adding that discreet online programs and assistive tools that are accessible via smart phones have proven popular with students. “No student wants to be singled out … and then you have some who might just think, ‘I don’t need it.’”

Companies like 3PlayMedia, which works with more than 200 schools and universities, have simplified the once-complex process of providing captioning for students with low hearing, low vision, or other disabilities.

Instead of having to visit their campus’s department for disability services and request a note taker to accompany them to a lecture hall, students at colleges that use 3PlayMedia’s captioning and transcription service can benefit if their professor simply clicks a button.

Professors at colleges and universities that use popular lecture capture technologies and video platforms such as Mediasite, Tegrity, and Kaltura can simply—with one button—transfer their lecture video to 3PlayMedia, which assigns the video to a professional transcriptionist, said Tole Khesin, a spokesman for 3PlayMedia, which provides the software-free, web-based service.

The transcriptions can be converted to a number of formats, including Microsoft Word and QuickTime, giving colleges options for how to post the lecture text to their class websites.

Students don’t have to sit through an entire recorded lecture once it’s posted to the campus site, Khesin said. Using 3PlayMedia’s search tool, students can find specific parts of a lecture while they’re reviewing for exams and quizzes.

Campus technology leaders have been given the go-ahead to find more assistive technology resources after states passed laws advocating for equal educational access for students with disabilities.

Ed-tech decision makers at Oklahoma State University (OSU) brought in experts from Docsoft, a custom software development firm based in California, after state legislators passed a law requiring all videos to be captioned on pubic universities’ websites.

Using Docsoft:AV, OSU professors and instructors just drag-and-drop a lecture video file into a folder titled “Caption me,” and a few hours later, the lecture is accurately captioned from start to finish, said Wade Price, manager of instructional technology services at OSU.

“Docsoft allows us to balance the load between [complying with] the law without sacrificing quality to the impaired while staying within budget,” Price said.

Because large schools like OSU post hundreds of lecture videos every week during the academic year, relying on manual transcription services would prove a risky proposition while state lawmakers keep an eye on compliance issues in higher education, Price said.

“We would not be physically able to caption every video we put out,” he said. “We would no doubt be susceptible to potential lawsuits with the enactment of state law requiring each and every video we produce to be captioned.”

A centerpiece of a thorough assistive technology initiative, campus technology leaders said, is ensuring the school is up to date with compliance requirements and institutional goals.

The University of Iowa is among a slew of campuses that have hired at least one full-time employee to monitor compliance for students with disabilities.

“It’s becoming very important to universities to make sure everything is accessible for everyone,” Stachowiak said.

California State University (CSU) is among major schools that have chosen computer-based compliance programs to protect the campus against lawsuits and provide required assistance for students with disabilities.

CSU uses HiSoftware’s Compliance Sherriff program, which is used on 23 campuses and helps colleges and universities maintain websites that can be browsed by everyone without difficulty, not just sighted students.

Students who use devices such as screen readers, voice-activated tools, and text readers struggle to understand everything—including photos, charts, and graphs—on a webpage, because those images often aren’t properly tagged with information that would tell students what appears on the computer screen.

Stachowiak said higher education has made a leap in its application of assistive technology over the past decade, and he expects the technology’s use to grow as campus officials, professors, and administrators better understand how to comply with laws designed to make ed tech more easily used by students with disabilities.

“With technology becoming more affordable and people understanding disabilities more and more, you’re going to see more assistive technology used in higher education, especially [by] those with invisible disabilities” such as Attention Deficit Disorder, he said.

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