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Educators in a Hurry to Find a Video Solution for Blind Students
Starting in January, educational and training videos will need to be accessible to the blind, but audio descriptions are difficult to create. Is there a better option?

When we think of video accessibility, we usually go straight to captions. But when the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) was signed into law in 2010, it had a requirement that most video covered by Section 508 also be accessible to users who are blind. It is noteworthy that the updates to Section 508 that take effect in January 2018 clarify that internal-facing educational and training videos are not exempt.

Suppose a teacher who is blind needs to play a video projected on a screen for the class. For this to work, the video player needs a user interface with which the teacher can easily interact, one with properly labeled inputs and status reports. Fortunately, this has largely become the norm over the past 5 years.

The more difficult scenario is where the student who is blind needs to learn from an educational video, since equivalent content is also needed for the motion picture track. The standard solution for providing that equivalent content since the 1970s has been Audio Description (AD), an additional channel of audio narration during natural pauses in the video’s native audio. In theaters, that channel is usually delivered wirelessly to special headsets; on television, it’s commonly on the SAP track. In streaming media, it’s either “burned-in” to an alternative version of the video file or else delivered as text (in a variant of Web Video Text Tracks, known as WebVTT, or Timed Text Markup Language, or TTML). The text-based method is preferable: Everyone benefits from the AD metadata since indexing and discoverability are accommodated.

Audio that describes educational video is incredibly difficult to create, and thus very rare. An educational video is informationally dense; the visual aids tend to be highly detailed, and it’s ambiguous as to what in them is relevant. Long pauses in the lecture audio, during which the visuals can be described without interference, are abnormal. Contrast that with an entertainment film where lingering establishing shots are frequent and dialog is scripted to be sparsely meaningful. Even given those advantages, audio describing entertainment film requires specialized training and poetic talent as well.

In order to fit adequately informative audio description into an educational video, “extended audio descriptions” are typically required, where the video is paused in order to make space for the description. This is a necessary evil that requires deliberate restraint; there is a limit to how much more patience and stamina can be demanded of students who can’t see the motion picture content well enough to learn from it. It ought not to take twice as long to watch a video due to frequent pauses for extended descriptions.

Strictly speaking, audio description is not required—equivalent content is—and we’re free to tinker to find what best meets our students’ and teachers’ needs. Suppose our streaming media is a 360° video. Were we to rely on traditional audio description, would we want a different description track for each 90° of the video? Each 45°? Each 30°? Would that decision be arbitrary, or based on how the target student would best learn from the 360° video?

Upping the ante, how do we provide equivalent content for the visual component of a virtual reality simulation? Does it make sense to tack on descriptions of what the student who is blind is missing in certain predictable orientations? Rather, should we reconsider our foundational assumptions about how to structure these synthetic experiences to make them even more satisfyingly informative than the real world usually is to a student who is blind?

My point is not that audio description is a bad thing. It’s wonderful for entertainment media and some educational video. I am, however, unconvinced that it’s usually the best implementation for providing equivalent content for the visual aids we use in educational media, especially when looking to the future. We may need to come up with new technologies that better meet our students’ needs.

[This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "The Challenge of Audio Description for Education."]

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