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Finding Videos with Good Captions

This is post #5 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

The use of videos in online education has been steadily growing for the past two decades. As soon as video creation, editing, and sharing became easier and available to all; the usage rates of videos in online courses increased exponentially. To learn more about the use of video in education, I recommend this National Library of Medicine article: Effective Educational Videos: Principles and Guidelines for Maximizing Student Learning from Video Content.

From step-by-step screencasts, to video interviews, to artistic or historical pieces, and even the talking head lectures; videos can be an effective way of developing skills or expanding students’ knowledge.

Screen capture of a video with captions saying: this is very dull instead of this is Barry Dahl

I’m hoping that you’ll agree that there’s a problem with the captions in the image above. Some of you might think the captions are very accurate. Hard to say for sure.

A Video is More Than Just a Video

If you provide an educational video to your students, there’s a good chance that one or more of them will not be able to see or hear the content of the video and audio. This is an accessibility problem that must be addressed. Video captions and audio transcripts play an important role in providing access to students with disabilities. In this post I’ll concentrate on finding educational videos with good captions that you can use in your online courses.

Possibly your organization has purchased access to one or more of the many video libraries that might have relevant content for the subject you teach. If being sold to an academic audience, these publishing companies *almost always* have captions applied to the videos. If they don’t then your org shouldn’t be paying for them in the first place.

Much more common is for faculty and course designers to look for videos in the publicly available sites such as YouTube and their competitors. If you find a video on one of those sites that you’d like to include in your course, there are two main questions that you need to answer:

  1. Do you the right to use the video, based on local copyright laws and/or the video license?
  2. Is the video properly captioned?

A good strategy to proactively search for videos with these qualities, rather than trying to first find a good video and then see if it has the qualities listed above.

Finding Videos That are Free to Use

There are several different approaches you might take to find videos that are approved for use (or not restricted from such use) in your online courses. Some of the most commonly used techniques for finding these videos include:

  • Ask a Librarian
    • Librarians are typically highly skilled at finding learning resources that can be legally used in education.  There is also a great chance that the library subscribes to one or more video libraries specifically for this purpose.
  • Search the entire web
    • Much has changed in the past year or two regarding searching for free-to-use videos. The current version of the Creative Commons search tool no longer searches for videos at all. Google used to have a better video search option than it does today, having removed the licensing filter from the video search tool.
    • I haven’t found an aggregating search tool ( one that searches multiple sites) for Creative Commons or Public Domain videos. The old Creative Commons search is still available, but no longer maintained.
  • Search for reusable videos on the individual video services
    • YouTube: when searching the YouTube site, you can turn on the filter that searches for Creative Commons licensed videos. When creators upload their videos to YouTube there are only two licensing options: 1) Standard YouTube license, and 2) Creative Commons – Attribution.
      • Therefore, any video on this site that has a Creative Commons license can be reused with attribution to the video owner.
      • With the standard YouTube license, the video owner has retained all rights to the video, except for the rights granted to YouTube by the video owner. In other words, they are not free to use by others without permission (even though many people do so).
    • Vimeo: probably the second-most active video site on the web, Vimeo also has filters that let you search for videos that are free-to-use.
      • For example, if I search for Volcano, I get 18.4K results. If I turn on the CC-BY filter (Creative Commons Attribution license, free to sue if giving credit to the video creator) I then get 442 videos to choose from.
      • One down side to Vimeo is that there is NOT a filter to help you look for videos that have edited (usually improved) captions. Also, Vimeo does not have automatic captioning like YouTube, so you may have a harder time finding videos you can use that also have good captions.

Searching with the YouTube Filters

When you search in YouTube, the default is to return all videos with both types of licensing. This is where the Filters come into play. Most relevant to our purposes (so far) is the filter for Creative Commons licensing, which is a signal that we can use the video.

Creative Commons filter applied to YouTube search results

In the image above we see the search results looking for Creative commons videos on the topic of volcanoes. This indicates that the video owner has given permission for the video to be used as long as attribution is given to the owner – a video credit if you will. YouTube recently stopped identifying the number of search results found. This is unfortunate since it gives a good indication of how many videos for your search topic are NOT licensed as Creative Commons.

The most common licenses that allow reuse without asking for permission are a) Public Domain and b) the various Creative Commons licenses. At the present time there is not a great search option for finding videos in the Public Domain, except for some of the other video platforms that include that option. Although possibly relevant for educational use, the concept of using anything based on the defense of Fair Use is beyond the scope of this post, so I’m going to hope that you can find content that is already licensed to allow for your use in an online course.

However, finding content that you can use is only part of the battle. Now you need to ensure that your found content has the necessary features for accessibility.

What are Video Captions?

Captions are an on-screen text version of audio dialogue and other sounds in a video. More than just the spoken words, captions should also identify who is speaking when it’s not otherwise evident, and provide a sense of other sounds such as street noises, background chatter, laughter, music, or other relevant sound effects. Captions and can be added to a recorded video, or provided to live videos in real time. For the captions to make sense within the context of the video, they should be synchronized with the visual content of the video.

The original purpose of captioning was to assist hearing impaired people, but they can also be useful in many different situations. For example, captions can be read when the audio can’t be heard for a variety of reasons, such as too much noise in the surrounding area, or due to the need to keep quiet (no audio playing) such as in a hospital or in a library when headphones aren’t available. Captions can also help when learning a second language.

Captions can be either closed or open. Closed captions can be turned on or off, whereas open captions are always visible on screen.

Are Subtitles and Captions Interchangeable Terms?

If you’ve ever watched a foreign-language film, then odds are good that you’ve used subtitles. The main purpose of subtitles is to translate the video dialogue into one or more other languages so that the video can reach wider audiences. Subtitles typically assume the viewer can hear the audio and therefore do not contain the background sounds or notifications for speaker changes.

The terminology can be a bit confusing, especially as you travel around the world. In North America, the terms captions and subtitles are not typically used interchangeably. In most of the other parts of the world, they are. In North America, it’s probably best to think of subtitles as language translators and captions for increasing access.

Searching for Videos with Good Captions

Once again, your Librarian can be an invaluable asset in finding captioned videos. If, however, you want to go it alone, here are a few tips.  

For the past ten years or so, all videos uploaded to YouTube are automatically captioned via voice recognition software as long as there are spoken words in the video. Therefore, all YouTube videos with spoken words have captions, unless the video owner deleted the captions. However, the voice-to-text captions are often very inaccurate; sometimes in an embarrassing manner. 

The trick is to use the available search filters when looking for a YouTube video. Turn on the “Subtitles/CC” filter and the only videos that will be listed are those with captions that are not the automatically generated captions. I like to say that the search results are those videos where the captions have been “touched,” which is the term I use to indicate that either:

  • The automatic captions have been edited, or
  • A captions file has been uploaded by the content owner to replace the auto-caps

Typically, but not always, either of the two actions above should result in captions that are much more accurate than the automatic captions. However, it is always a good practice to review the video with the captions turned on to ensure that they are helpful and not inaccurate. The short video below shows how to use these filters in YouTube.

Looking for videos without words?

No words, no captions. Typically our concern with video captions is for the student with no or low hearing. However, if the video doesn’t contain any words, then those students are not missing anything. However again, we still can’t forget about the student with no or low vision.

Maybe you find a great video that shows exactly what you want students to learn. However, it is more of a designer video and includes no words at all. How will the unsighted student learn what you want them to from this video? You will need to supply some sort of narrative about what is happening in the video.

Here are a couple sites where you might be able to find beautiful videos that are free-to-use that are either silent or with background music only.

  • Pixabay: I frequently use Pixabay for finding free-to-use photos, illustrations, and other still images. However, they also have free videos on their site. This is more of a collection of stock footage videos, so you won’t always find something useful for education purposes, but you might.
    • Maybe you just want a beautiful video to spark a conversation in the discussion forum, or something similar. If you’re teaching about anything that’s out in nature, there’s a good chance you’ll find some videos here. Most of the videos are under one minute in length.
  • Pexels: similar to Pixabay, you’ll find all sort of images at Pexels, as well as free-to-use videos.

There’s lots of video out there, here are a few more

Chance are good that I haven’t mentioned your own favorite site for educational videos. Here’s a short list of possible sites. NOTE: I cannot and do not vouch for the captioning that happens or doesn’t happen on these sites. It’s sort of the Wild Wild West, so be careful out there.

Lastly, here is a graphic that summarizes the search filter possibilities in You Tube.

Step1: enter search terms in YouTube, Step 2: Open the search filers list, Step 3: Click on the filters for Subtitles/CC AND Creative Commons. Optional filters for video recency, video length, and sort order of results.

Still want more about captions? Here you go.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text
  5. Finding Videos with Good Captions

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