Thoughts on the MOOC Captioning Lawsuit

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In the beginning of February, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a lawsuit against Harvard and MIT for failing to caption their MOOC-based video content. Since then, as a Kaltura Solutions Engineer for Education, I have had many conversations with educators about accessibility, captioning, and what the lawsuit will mean to all educational institutions. There are a lot of questions and concerns. What outcome does the NAD hope to achieve? How is this going to affect educational institutions?
Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of NAD, has written an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun which sheds some light. The bottom line is that this lawsuit is targeted at video content in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) specifically. This does not mean that media content in traditional enrollment-based courses will not become a target in another suit; however, it is not the target in this suit specifically.
Because of Harvard and MIT’s roles as the founders of EdX, a nonprofit MOOC provider and platform, they play a leadership role in the MOOC ecosystem. If the lawsuit is successful, and Harvard and MIT are required legally to caption all MOOC video content, other MOOC providers and campuses will follow.
What implications does this lawsuit hold for enrollment-based courses? Some clarity is found in NAD’s statement on education. NAD states that “Access is an individualized process and can be realized in a variety of ways.” This is an interesting take on accessibility, but holds some important insight into how this might progress.
For some perspective on what this might mean, we can look at how braille and other equivalent print-based materials are traditionally provided to blind or vision-impaired students. Most campuses provide braille content on an as-needed or as-requested basis. There is a specific request process, after which a campus searches for existing accessible materials. If accessible versions of the requested materials are not found, the appropriate office on campus will create an accessible version in the requested format.
Extrapolating out to how this might look when applied to video content in enrollment-based courses, and thinking about the way in which a lot of campuses currently handle captioning needs, this could still be handled on an as-needed basis while providing an equal opportunity for deaf or hearing-impaired students. While there is a lot of value in the searchability of captions, not to mention the value to students with invisible disabilities, cost usually prohibits campuses from captioning all video content. While there is currently no official opinion in place regarding video content in enrollment-based courses, it would seem to make sense that the conversation will need to happen soon.
Ultimately, we haven’t learned a whole lot more about the lawsuit or where it’s going. But we do know that it is targeting MOOCs specifically. Whether your campus is running MOOCs or not, it’s well worth paying close attention to how this progresses.
Kaltura is taking video accessibility as a core priority for the foreseeable future from a product and design approach.  “Accessibility” is more than just supporting the use of tools for students with disabilities.  Strong accessibility in design can ultimately benefit all users of a software application/platform.  For example, captioning video assets not only assures ADA compliance but also adds rapid search functionality that benefits all users who are looking for particular portions of videos. In addition, Kaltura has partnered with 12 leading universities, government organizations, and school districts in a focused Accessibility Advisory Board, meeting quarterly to review improvements to the platform, gather feedback and share best practices among the group in order to benefit all Kaltura partners.  As this further develops we will continue to publish our thoughts and insights.

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