Perhaps an unruly dog ate a student’s earbuds and there’s your essential video lecture on Ethical Engineering they simply have to watch in the jam-packed silent carriage of the 8:50 from Leamington Spa. In this all too common circumstance captions are key.

What if you have an especially grating tone and listening to you might drive your students mad and you fear they might explode? Captions could well save the day.

Maybe they are unable to hear sounds or find it difficult listening for long periods and so want a transcription to peruse at their own pace. Students undoubtedly love your educational videos but sometimes you mumble, sometimes you drone and at times you rattle along with such fury you sound like you’re being hunted by assassins.

Captions can be the solution to many physical, practical, social or emotional situations. In fact, students can expect video captions for any good or silly reason and of course you would want the captions to be there just when they need them. You’d not expect them to make a special request. Nor would you force them to fill out endless forms justifying why, for heaven’s sake, they could possibly want captions. It’s not an unreasonable request. They’re not demanding the hour-long presentation on 18th century macroeconomics is transcribed into semaphore, are they? Now, that would be a stretch. No, video captions are not an eccentric request in these modern times with cinematic teaching so twenty-four everywhere.

And so, we at the University of Northampton provide machine-generated captions for each and every one of your video masterworks sat on our MediaSpace platform. Hurrah, you yell inwardly in the slowly shuffling lunchtime queue. But hold your horse! Machines are, in many ways, remarkable but in other ways they are, like many a politician or pig, decidedly lacking in wisdom, wit or common sense. Captions are one such area where machines often fare poorly.

Consider an average video about a common subject, like making a pot of tea. How does a machine make sense of the clear instructions provided by the skilled and softly-spoken tea-maker? Utter gobbledegook, dear reader or listener. The machine’s algorithm struggles with even the simplest step. How does the mighty machine transcribe the modest instruction of leaving the tea-bag to sit in the pot and brew?

“Leave the tea bark in the pottery and lettuce prove.”

Ridiculous twaddle.

And so, in truth, though you may have many videos in your MediaSpace account with automatically-generated captions, the understanding of this machine-made text can be like tumbling headfirst into word casserole. A linguistic hell for those with a dyslexic mind or for that matter anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language.

A potential calamity.

Thankfully, one solution is provided in the form of a simple caption-editing interface. This electronic instrument enables the gentle presenter to easily tweak the nonsense generated by the machine or equally the nonsense generated by the presenter themselves.

I should also point out if a student has a specific need for captions, you can ask for a human being of immense skill and dexterity to write the captions manually with the machine as a mere assistant to the process. Thankfully, this service does not require any form-filling nor nosey interrogation but is instead founded on unconditional trust and the belief it is not merely a trick on the part of the video author to avoid undesirable finger-strain.

So, in the concluding stage of this somewhat rambling essay can I offer my modest advice on some good practice, if you’re to provide captions to your audience with the least amount of extra work. Academic life is ordinarily bursting with work, so to add more without need is surely a woeful circumstance.

My first tip is to be clear.

Be clear in both in diction and in content. That is to say, don’t mumble or speak with your mouth full, as all good children are taught. Don’t assume your audience has the faintest idea what you are talking about. Don’t assume your audience even cares what you’re talking about. Sure, they may need to understand the knowledge you are trying to transfer but don’t confuse that with thinking they want to listen to you. If this is about knowledge transfer and not a fascinating fireside yarn of monsters and magic, then be clear. If, of course, your video is precisely a story of monsters and magic, accept my earnest apology and kindly share the link as I am exceptionally partial to such tales. This leads me to my second and mercifully final piece of advice.

Keep your video short.

Surely an irony coming from one such as I, able to spin a lengthy yarn from such meagre thread? Like the best party food, learning is sometimes best consumed in small bites and if you cannot keep it short, then please keep it engaging. Tell a story. Your audience may forgive you if your story interests them, but a limp string of facts is no better than a shopping list. Be clear and be interesting and your video captions will sing.

Now, go on your way and teach the world to sing.

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