All About Captions

by Christine Scherer

Captions are one of the most well-known accessibility aids. They are a common sight on TV screens in noisy restaurants, and the option to activate them is available on nearly every DVD and blu-ray menu. But as common as they are, many people may not understand the importance of captioning as an accessibility tool. They are especially vital in online courses, where pre-recorded video lectures may be a student’s only opportunity to see their teacher.

What are captions?

Captions are “text versions of the spoken word presented within multimedia,” such as web videos. (WebAim, Captions, Transcripts, and Audio Descriptions) Typically, captions appear along the bottom of a video frame and update in sync with what is being spoken.

It is worth noting that, while similar, captions and subtitles are not identical. Subtitles transcribe only spoken words, such as the dialogue in a movie, and not any other sounds. Captions provide text transcription for any significant sound in a video. For example, imagine a scene in an action film in which the main character is running away, then suddenly stops to look back over her shoulder. With subtitles, there would be no explanation for her actions, so long as no one spoke during the scene. Captions would provide a notation such as “[distant explosion],” which conveys the off-screen sound effect to viewers.

Who benefits?

Captions are useful to a wide number of students. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students use them to fully understand what is being communicated through speech, music, or sound effects. Students who are non-native English speakers may find them helpful, as reading along with what is being said can aid comprehension. Students may also simply find themselves in situations where watching a video with audio is not possible–on their work computer during a lunch break, for example, or late at night while others are asleep.

How are course videos captioned?

Videos developed for the course in partnership with SPS Distance Learning–whether they’re filmed in our on-campus studio or recorded via webcam at a faculty’s home–will have captions. Writing scripts for these videos allows for Instructional Technologists to add captions quickly and easily, without any additional cost. Unscripted videos will be sent to an external transcription service for captions. Faculty are strongly encouraged to create scripts for their videos, in part to make captioning much easier.

How are external videos captioned?

There are countless resources available on the internet, but not all of them meet SPS Distance Learning’s accessibility standards. These standards state that any required course material–video, audio, or still image–must have a text equivalent accompanying it. For external videos without captions*, the following steps should be taken:

  • Confirm that the video was posted by the copyright holder. If not, try to find the original version–the copyright holder may have included captions.
  • See if a captioned version of the video is available through Course Reserves.
  • Consider alternative, accessible resources. Is there another video that conveys the same information in an accessible manner?

If a suitable replacement with captions cannot be found through these methods, then the video can be sent to a transcription service, and a transcript will be produced for inclusion in the course site.

*YouTube’s auto-generated captions don’t count! The quality is often very poor, rendering the video unintelligible to viewers who rely on captions to understand what is being said.

Learn More

Read more about captions on the SPS Distance Learning website. Have specific questions about captions? Contact Christine Scherer at christine.scherer@northwestern.edu for more information.



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