Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses

Post #6 in Accessibility series. #A11Y

In post #5 in this series, I showed you some techniques to help you find videos with good captions that you are allowed (legally speaking) to use in your online courses. Of course I realize that you might want to make your own videos to ensure that your course content is explained in the manner that you prefer, and to put your own personal stamp on the course materials.

Let’s take a look at the several different techniques that you might employ to create a good set of captions for a video. I’m not going to cover all the different ways to make a video, but you likely already have your own software and techniques, or you can easily learn them as you begin to experiment with video creation.

On-screen video captions are created from text transcript files with time codes identifying when that phrase is to appear on screen. If you prefer to start from scratch, you can create your own caption files using any word processing platform or almost any text editing tool. If you would rather let someone else do the initial drafting, I recommend you use a video platform such as YouTubeTM or a similar video platform that has tools to make for relatively easy work to include good captioning in your video.

Captioning in YouTube

If you have a GoogleTM account (almost everyone does), you also have a YouTube account. You already have one if you use any of the various Google tools. If you don’t have a Google account, creating one is free and easy. After logging in to your account, go to the YouTube Video Manager. Here you will find many different options related to your video. Alternatively, if you are viewing your own video, you should also see a series of icons just below the video frame, including a CC icon, as shown below.

User-added image

After clicking the icon, you will be at the Manage subtitles and closed captions page. On the right-hand side, you’ll see a blue bar that says Add new subtitles or CC. This is where you could upload your own transcript or subtitles file. Alternatively, you can click the green button besides the language of the currently published captions, which might be the automatically-generated captions, unless you have previously edited the captions.

Click the button next to the Language identifier to edit the current set of captions

Editing the captions is quite easy; and you are able to make changes to the captions text as well as the timing of when each caption starts and stops.

Creating a Transcript

Some students will benefit by having a transcript of the captions. One way to get a transcript is to download the captions file from YouTube and turn it into a transcript. You’ll find the download option in the “Actions” drop-down menu while editing the caption text and timing.

A technique that I often use is to create a transcript file simultaneously as I am recording the video. I do this by using a speech-to-text tool while I am making the recording. There are several free tools that do a fairly good job of converting your speech into text on the fly. Google Docs works fairly well. My preferred method lately has been to use the speech-to-text converter on my mobile phone (it’s an Android, YMMV). It does a great job of parsing through my speech and creating the text file. I can then take that text file and make any final edits prior to publishing the transcript.

There are many techniques for creating captions and transcripts. For the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE), Karen Sorensen created the video shown below to explain how she creates captions in YouTube.

In the next post, we’ll consider some of the important accessibility elements for HTML content pages in your online courses.

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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

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 filters 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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text

This is post #4 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

In the previous post I tried to explain the basics about Alt Text for images used in online courses. However, some online course content may be far more complicated to describe, and thus require the instructor to provide much more alternative information than can be handled through normal Alt Text methods.

Complex Image Types

The following items represent the most common types of complex images used in online learning:

  • Numerical charts, graphs, and scatter plots
  • Flow charts
  • Organizational charts
  • Diagrams and illustrations
  • Infographics or similar text-heavy graphics such as word clouds
  • Maps
  • Cartoons and comics
  • Photos with a great deal of visual information that is important to the learning process

Starting with the Obvious

The “table” shown below is not a table at all. It’s an image of a table. A screen capture or whatever you want to call it. It’s a .jpg, not readable by assistive technology.

This flat image is illustrative of how difficult it would be to describe all this information.

You would not be able to include much information at all in the Alt Text attribute to describe this information. It is recommended that you not write a book (or even a paragraph) in the Alt Text attribute. One or two sentences probably is not going to cut it for a complicated graphic like this.

So, the obvious point here is to NOT take an otherwise difficult-to-read piece of learning content and make it even more difficult by turning it into a flat image that cannot be read by a screen reader.

However, imagine that the table above is not an image, but a properly constructed data table with headers and formatting that allows a screen reader user to tab through the information contained therein. Even then it would be a difficult task to understand all the info contained within.

More Examples to Consider

How about this infographic (shortened for space but still illustrative)? The text in this infographic is not machine readable, and many infographics have an enormous amount of text.

The real infographic is 3 times this long

Or how about this Org Chart?

Lots of information in the organizational chart

How about this column chart of student survey data?

Only 9 columns in this chart, but lots of information to explain.

Long Descriptions for Complex Images

In each example above, how you would go about describing this information to a student who cannot see the images? You can use some of the strategies described previously to write longer descriptions:

  • Long Descriptions, using the HTML <img> longdesc Attribute, can be provided on a separate webpage and be as long as you choose
  • Describing the image in the surrounding paragraph text also allows you to say as much as you like about the image
  • Image captions can be longer than Alt Text, but not super long

Or you can convert the image information into a more accessible format, such as adding a data table adjacent to the column chart or a turning a diagram into a tactile graphic.

Data Tables as Alternative Text for Charts

A properly formed data table is the best way to provide access to the data contained in an image of a chart, such as the column chart above. In a later post we’ll look at how to make an accessible data table.

The data in the table is real text, so it’s very accessible and provides an excellent alternate description for the chart image. Depending on the publishing platform, a data table might also offer the ability to sort and manipulate the data, so presenting the data in this way would definitely benefit all students.

Here is the data table for the column chart above

Survey ItemFY04FY05FY06
Online bookstore service5.285.715.67
Online info for financial aid5.325.485.71
Institutional responsiveness5.455.675.72
Priorities Survey for Online Learners for Lake Huron College. Student satisfaction ratings on a 7-point scale.

Before you decide on a Data Table

Consider the context and the learning goal. Is a data table needed? In other words, are the specific data figures and details an important part of the learning? Consider the following image that might be used in a tax class for an Accounting major:

Tax chart from IRS website, described in the surrounding text
IRS chart: Gross Collections by Type of Tax, Fiscal Years 2009-2018

How important are the details above. Is the exact amount of total tax collected in 2012 an important number? Almost certainly not (so says the former accounting instructor). So what is important? Of course it depends on the intent of the instructor, but possibly:

  • how much the total tax collected has grown over the 9 years
    • and yet business income tax collections are essentially flat over the same span
  • How income taxes on individuals in 2018 are approximately 8 times larger than the taxes collected on business income
    • or maybe how the difference in 2009 was 5 times and then it grew to 8 times by 2018
  • How “Other” taxes are 5 times larger than business income taxes – and what are those other taxes?

In other words, often times the gist of the information is really what you want the students to know. If your instruction is based around knowing the gist of the information in the chart, then you can provide a summary of the important things to know. However, if the goal is for students to be able to summarize the data in plain language – then they will need to be able to analyze the details in order to come up with their own summary or gist – thus the need for a data table.

Making that Infographic Accessible

You can find the infographic shown earlier in this post at the Big Hack website. What you’ll find there are two things I want to highlight.

  1. The text version of the information is provided directly below the infographic. That is their alternative text for the image, and they even included links to the sources of the information. This is very good.
  2. They also provide embed code “If you would like to share this infographic on your website.” This is where the accessibility typically falls apart.
    • This next section is important: “Please include a copy of the plain text version alongside the image for anyone who cannot access the information. Alternatively, you can signpost to this page saying there is a plain text version available.”
    • If you don’t do either of these things (and many people don’t), then you’ve just divorced the inaccessible infographic from the accessible alternative text. Don’t do that!

Before Wordle We Had Wordle

Here we have the lovely (jk) word cloud. Let’s assume that you teach some sort of language class and the exercise at hand is to look at how words from one language seep into usage in another language. Such as the words in the image above that are Spanish words commonly used by English-speakers. In other words, let’s assume that there is some educational value in the words in this cloud. That very often is not the case with word clouds.

This graphic was made years ago at Wordle dot net, which appears now to be in the deadpool, likely thanks to the NYT Wordle site. The original Wordle word cloud generator appears to be alive in an alternate site called EdWordle.

Word clouds are very strange from a web accessibility perspective. To make the word cloud, you enter words in plain text (usually copy and paste or provide a URL) and have the generator make a flat image that contains the same words in text that is not machine readable. Then you need to provide Alt Text so that the words in the image are available to assistive technology. To do that, you need to provide the original plain text words. That’s a strange workflow.

If your word cloud has no significant educational value, then you can safely mark it as a decorative image. If you have a word cloud that you really want to use in your course content or elsewhere, go ahead and do so, But, and this is a big but, you must provide all the important words and possibly the reasons that make those words important in plain text on the same page or as a Long Description page.

Last Example – An Attempt at Humor?

Here’s a poster I put together many moons ago.

This may be the best accounting joke ever told.

I don’t think that the regular Alt Text attribute (about 125 characters) will work for this image. Assuming that you don’t decide to mark it as decorative, how would you provide Alt Text for this image?

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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses

This is post #3 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

What are Alternate Text Descriptions?

For a sighted person, images related to the learning content can be very informative and valuable. A picture’s worth a thousand words and all that stuff. So let’s assume that you have included several images in your online course; such as images in content pages, in discussion posts, possibly in a quiz question, and so on. Let’s also assume that one or more of your students has a visual impairment and uses a screen reader (assistive technology) while accessing your course.

Visual impairments make it difficult or even impossible for the student to see the image and comprehend the information you are trying to convey with that image. That’s where Alt Text come into play. For this series of blog posts, I will refer to Alt Text as shorthand for Alternate Text, also often called Alternative Text.

Alt Text is the text-only information that is associated with an image for the purpose of providing information that is equivalent to the image itself.

Informative Images or Decorative Images?

Informative Image Example

Many images used in online courses are informational in nature; which means that the image conveys information that is part of the learning activity in which it is used. For example, in an Entomology course on Bees and Beekeeping, this image of a honeybee pollinating a sunflower is most likely an important image for the learning process, or at least it could be. Students who can see the image won’t necessarily know what is educational about it, but they might. In other words, the educational purpose might be obvious to someone who can view the image, but it definitely won’t be obvious to someone who can’t view the image. This is where Alt Text comes in. More on that in a minute.

The important part of learning from this image might not be obvious to your learners.

Decorative Image Example

A decorative image in an online course is one that does not convey important educational content. They are often used for layout purposes, humor, or just what could be called eye-candy. For example, assume that you want to have a little fun with your students so you post a News item stating that today is National Hoagie Day, and post a photo as well (maybe to spark a debate as to whether it should be called a hoagie, a sub, a hero, or a grinder). A student who is unable to view the image is at no educational disadvantage by missing this image. There is no need to explain the image to the student either. Your text announcing that it is Hoagie Day is sufficient for them to see your humorous side.

No need for Alt Text since this is decorative

Alt Text for Informative Images

For a student who cannot view the image, the informational content must be explained in real text in some way that is accessible to the student using assistive technology, typically screen reading software. That readable text can be in the form of:

  • An alt text description that is part of the HTML code, but is not viewable on the screen.
  • A descriptive caption for the image that can be read by sighted people and read by screen readers.
  • A description of the educational content conveyed by the image in the surrounding paragraph text.

For the honeybee image shown above, we would need to know the context in order to determine what should be included in the alt text or caption or surrounding paragraph. Possibly the point has to do with the fact that sunflowers are self-pollenating, which might beg the question of whether the honeybee is adding any value by visiting the flower. Let’s make that assumption for this example. Here is one possibility for the alt text:

Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Is that the best Alt Text for this image? We don’t know, that’s a trick question. The answer of what is the best alt text is contingent on the point of the learning conveyed by the image. That’s where your professional judgment comes in.

However, there is information in the Alt Text above that is not obvious in the photo. The info about bees improving crop yields is a piece of learning that would be important to all your learners. If it is only contained in the Alt Text, then sighted users could be at a disadvantage. More on this at the end of the post.

Effective practices for writing Alt Text

Some basic guidelines:

  • Do not include “picture of” or “image of” in the Alt Text.
    • A screen reader will automatically announce that it has come to an image. So an Alt Text “Image of a honeybee” would be read aloud by a screen reader as “image, Image of a honeybee”.
  • Using correct grammar can enhance the experience for screen reader users:
    • Capitalize the first letter.
    • End whole sentences with a period.
  • As a general rule of thumb, keep Alt Text prose to about 100-200 characters or less.
    • Some people say that there is a limit of 125 characters or similar, but my research shows this not to be true. It might have been true once upon a time, but browsers and screen readers change all the time.
    • Look at using other methods for longer descriptions of an image.
  • Many images contain embedded text which is not readable by assistive technology.
    • If any embedded words are important, make sure they are included in the Alt Text.
  • As illustrated with the honeybee, don’t include unique information in the Alt Text.
    • Don’t put sighted users at a disadvantage by putting important information ONLY in the Alt Text.
  • Don’t repeat yourself.
    • If the information is already available in the content within the proper context, repeating the same information in the Alt Text is a waste of the learner’s time.

You’re not trying to improve SEO in your online course

SEO is shorthand for Search Engine Optimization. You can visit many websites where they school you on writing good alt text for an image on a website. They tell you to be as descriptive as possible. Refer back to the bee and sunflower photo. Here are two possible Alt Text outcomes:

  1. Honeybee sitting on the outer edge of the disc florets of a bright yellow sunflower.
  2. Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Number 1 is very descriptive of the image. But what is the educational value of that text?

Number 2 conveys information that is relevant to the course and may be made more memorable including the image.

For webpage optimization, many web developers will fill the Alt Text for images with a bunch of keywords since search engines typically scan image Alt Text. Keep in mind that an online course has a very different purpose, so please don’t dump a bunch of keywords into your Alt Text.

Alt Text for Decorative Images

Images that are for decorative purposes do not need to be explained to students with no or low vision. To properly communicate the fact that the image is decorative, you need to use null alt text so that assistive technology can inform the student that the image is not important to the educational content of the topic.

Code example of null alt text: <img src=”yummy-hoagie.jpg” alt=””>

It is important to understand that null alt text (as shown above in the code with alt=””) is not the same as no alt text, where the alt text attribute is completely missing. If null alt text is entered, assistive technology will ignore the image altogether, which is a good thing since it conveys nothing important. However, if the alt text attribute is completely missing, then the student will be told that there is an image, and they will wonder what they are missing since there is no alt text to explain the importance of the image.

How do you determine whether an image is informative or decorative? I see many examples of where authors error on the side of caution. To me, the side of caution is to write Alt Text for an image just to be on the safe side in case it’s not merely decorative. I might be one who pulls the decorative lever more often than others. If it doesn’t add to the learning at hand, or if the info conveyed by the image is available in plain text somewhere else in the materials, then I’m likely to call it decorative.

Why not add Alt Text anyway even if the image is decorative?

Students using assistive technology such as a screen reading platform already have hurdles to clear in order to learn the course content. Anything that saves them time or doesn’t muddy the waters is a good thing for them. Adding Alt Text to a decorative image may even be a signal to the unsighted learner that there is something more important about the image than intended by the instructor. If you decide the image is decorative, then use the null Alt Text attribute and let the learner skip over the image entirely. It’s the learner-friendly thing to do.

Should decorative images even be a thing in online courses?

I’ve had several people ask whether it’s a good practice to just completely leave out decorative images. One school of thought is that if the images don’t enhance the learning in any significant way, then why have them at all?

Short answer: Decorative images are fine

Longer answer: Decorative images are fine as long as they are marked properly with the Null Alt Text attribute. Some of the main reasons for using decorative images include:

  • adding an icon next to a text link to draw attention or increase the clickable area;
  • the image is already described by surrounding text;
  • adding borders, spacers, and corners for visual styling;
  • because you want to include some “eye-candy”.
    • just because an unsighted student can’t appreciate the eye candy isn’t a reason to take it away from all learners (remember, there’s no enhancement of the learning with these images).

What about Captions?

Some software platforms make it easy to enter an image caption, while others require you to add the caption coding directly into the HTML for the page. If you know how to do this, it is an effective practice to put this information in the caption for the benefit of all students. If you enter the text in a caption, then do not repeat it in the alt text attribute.

If your authoring platform doesn’t provide an easy way to insert captions, then you might want to consider the other possible ways to provide your learners with the important info in the images.

Don’t Forget About Surrounding Text

Many experts will suggest that the best practice, and in this case I really do mean best, is to put all of the relevant information in the surrounding text. For the sunflower and honeybee photo above, that would mean that everything that is educationally important about that image should be explained in the on-page text that accompanies the image. Sighted students and those using assistive technology would all have access to the same information. If all the information is conveyed in the surrounding text, then it is appropriate to not repeat that info in the alt text, at which point the image can be treated as decorative for students using assistive technology.

Alt Text: a Useful Point-of-View, IMO

I like to think of Alt Text as if it’s living “behind the photo.” If you were viewing a physical photo album, it would be something that someone wrote on the back of the photo, or on the page behind the photo. Unless you know it’s there, you’ll never know what it says.

Of course it’s possible for a sighted student to find the Alt Text for a digital image on a webpage, but it’s not easy nor intuitive. Remember, the mouse over popup is NOT the Alt Text.

Refer back to the suggested Alt Text for the bee and sunflower. There is information in the Alt Text that is not obvious in the photo. This is a clear example, IMO, of a case where you should not use the Alt Text code attribute but should either insert a caption or put that information into the surrounding text on the page. That way the info is readable by sighted users as well as learners using assistive technology.

Even though sunflowers are self-pollenating, research shows honeybee activity can improve crop yields.

Some recommended resources for more info on Alt Text for simple images:

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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?

Post #2 in a series of twelve posts intended to help you improve the accessibility of your online courses.

This is a greatly shortened version of the full post. Check out the TL;DR version to see it all.

In this installment, we’ll take a look at a somewhat technical, and often over-looked aspect of using technology and software in education. Often-overlooked unless you are an IT professional or an employee working in a purchasing office.

Check the Accessibility Concerns of your Educational Software

What is a VPAT?

The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a tool that provides information about how well a vendor’s product or service conforms to the Section 508 Accessibility Standards. Since it is voluntary, not all companies will provide a VPAT for all of their products, but most companies that take an active interest in being inclusive with their product development will provide this information.

How to Find a VPAT

In the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE), we asked the students (who were educators) to search for a VPAT for software or hardware that they used in their online courses. It could be something that they used themselves for content creation or similar purposes, or it could be something that they encouraged or required their students to use.

In most cases, WAMOE participants would do a web search using keywords of VPAT and the name of the tech product. This simple web search would often bear fruit very easily, with an obvious search result that would lead to the desired document. However, there were many times when the search brought back confusing results or no helpful information at all.

What if They Don’t Have a VPAT?

Unless you can be assured that the recommended technology will be accessible to all students, it is a good idea to provide an alternative assignment that can be used by those who cannot make use of the primary technology that has been assigned.

What Can You Learn from a VPAT?

The VPAT is a series of tables, each comprised of three columns. The Summary Table provides the vendor’s information related to conformance with Section 508 Standards of the United States Rehabilitation Act. Column one of the Summary Table contains eight accessibility criteria that are found in subparts B and C of the 508 Standards. Column two describes any supporting features in the product or service that helps conform to the individual criterion. Column three is for any remarks and explanations that the vendor would like to share.

VPAT Example – a web conferencing solution

The detail table for Section 1194.22 Web-based Internet information and applications includes the following (excerpting criteria a, c, and g as examples):

  • Criteria: (a) A text equivalent for every non­text element shall be provided (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content).
    • Supporting Features: Supports with Exceptions
    • Remarks and explanations: The product interface itself does not have any deficiencies requiring this, and authors are urged to do so should the need arise.
  • Criteria: (c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
    • Supporting Features: Supports
    • Remarks and explanations: All color contrasts comply with industry standard minimums.
  • Criteria: (g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
    • Supporting Features: Not Applicable
    • Remarks and explanations: The product does not contain any data tables.

Row (a) contains something that you’ll see quite frequently; the vendor saying that their product doesn’t have accessibility issues with a criterion, but content loaded by the end user just might. It’s always important to differentiate between product features and items added by the end user.

In an educational context, this boils down to the following: a) is the technology accessible to the instructor or student who needs to create educational content, and b) is the output of the technology accessible to users/viewers of said output?

You’ve Found a VPAT, Now What?

At many colleges and universities, vendor VPATs are used as a first step to verify the accessibility of the technology (both software and hardware) that will be purchased or recommended for use by students and employees. This is only a first step, because it is a wise choice to do some additional end-user testing to verify the information contained in the VPAT. For example, consider a software product that indicates in the VPAT that text included in an object created by that software is readable by assistive technology such as a screen reader. It would be a good idea to test that yourself using the screen reading technology that is normally deployed at your organization.

More info in TL;DR

Yikes, it’s Inaccessible. Now what?

Okay, so now you’ve reviewed the VPAT and completed functional testing and found the product to have accessibility barriers that cannot be accommodated. Now what? Well either the product shouldn’t be used or you have to provide students with disabilities an accessible alternative when they encounter a barrier. These accessible alternatives should be figured out well in advance of a student with a disability enrolling.

Still need more about the VPAT? Check out the longer version of this post.

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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why

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

During this series, the word accessibility is used in the context of making your online courses better for students with various disabilities. To help set the stage for this series of posts, let’s start with a couple of videos.

Keyboard image with Accessibility key replacing the Enter key

Portland Community College: To Care and Comply

Portland Community College (PCC) created this 11-minute video in 2015. PCC employees talk about their web accessibility guidelines and how supporting students with disabilities is a shared responsibility across the college. Tips and techniques that faculty and staff can use to improve their online course materials to make course components more accessible are also included. It is embedded below, or you can open it separately in YouTube.

These things jump out at me from the PCC video:

  • The intro examples of navigating online courses with assistive technology
  • The various students’ stories about their needs for accessible learning materials
  • Mission of PCC, and there is no success without access (10:30)

You can learn more about the various accessibility resources provided by PCC at their website.

University of Washington DO-IT: IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say

I also highly recommend a second video, this one from DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington. DO-IT provides many excellent resources for educators and students. They also have an excellent Center for Universal Design in Education. This video highlights the importance and strategies for making Information Technology accessible on a campus-wide basis. Open DO-IT video separately.

Highlights for me in this video include:

  • Notice that the video is audio-described (AD).
  • At 1:37, Tracy Mitrano clarifies that making an accommodation was a good starting point, but only the start of the conversation about dealing with accessibility.
  • At 2:32, Pablo Molinda states that just like privacy and security, accessibility needs to be designed from the initial conception, not an afterthought.
  • At 3:58, Gerry Hanley shows that his state system requires all vendors provide equally effective access to the services provided by the vendor.

In the second post we’ll look into the importance of a VPAT and what you can learn from them. In the remaining posts we’ll focus more on the question of how to improve the accessibility of online courses. I thought it was important to start with this post dealing more with the question of why improved web accessibility is important in online learning.

The PCC video is shared with express written consent from PCC, and the University of Washington video is shared under the license of Creative Commons Attribution. The accessibility keyboard graphic is shared under Creative Commons Attribution by creator Poakpong.

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
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

Hate-filled Facebook Deserves to be Unfriended en Masse

This was published as a Local View column in the Duluth News Tribune on September 3, 2020.

Image used by the Duluth News Tribune

Facebook has proven itself to be a danger to democracy. The republic is under attack, and Zuckerberg is the attacker.

If Facebook is your main source for news, then you’re not getting news; you’re getting indoctrinated by propaganda. According to PBS News, fake accounts created in Russia during the 2016 election reached more than 126 million Americans, almost equaling the 136 million who voted in the election. A fake account is one that is not backed by a real person — or not by the person purported to be behind the account.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook knew about the Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 election but didn’t take action because of organizational dysfunction. Regardless of why Facebook didn’t take action, it knew and did nothing.

As we near another presidential election, we again find that the information fed to the public across social-media platforms is far too often filled with lies and fake videos. In 2020, Facebook still knows and yet does almost nothing to stop it.

Even if Facebook became more effective at cracking down on fake accounts and misinformation detection, I wouldn’t recommend anyone trust the company to take action. The Proud Boys hate group was permanently banned from the platform in October 2018. However, in July 2020, Facebook removed 54 accounts, 50 pages, and four Instagram accounts (also owned by Facebook) where the hate group was back up to its usual violence-inducing tactics. Sure, Proud Boys got caught, but how much damage did it do before getting caught?

Facebook has rules against accounts and posts by violent militias, and yet the Kenosha shooter was egged on by a page that encouraged armed Americans to take to the streets of the far southeastern Wisconsin city. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook made an “operational mistake” by failing to remove the page until after the event occurred. So people died because of an “operational mistake?”

Facebook is Fakebook. The amount of misinformation and fake news is staggering. Your timeline is littered with fake outrage over every little stupid thing. Not to mention the fake enthusiasm about the minutiae of life (“Oh boy, baked potatoes tonight!”).

I left Facebook almost two years ago. I no longer was willing to be the product it was selling to others. Believe it or not, I find I can still stay in touch with friends and family. Facebook made that easy, but the price tag was too high.

If your business uses Facebook as your only “website,” then I won’t be your customer. If you’re a local politician who mainly talks to the people through Facebook, then I won’t hear your message. If you’re trying to sell something on Facebook, then I won’t be your buyer.

Zuckerberg doesn’t care a whit whether his platform is used by foreign agents in an attempt to manipulate the U.S. presidential election. If you are a Facebook user, then you support Zuckerberg and his goals. You are not an innocent bystander.

More than 1,100 companies and organizations joined the advertiser boycott against Facebook in July to pressure the platform to take more action on hate speech and deceptive posts from politicians. I suggest that you join in by deleting your Facebook account and leaving the hate-filled site behind.

If you don’t want to believe some rando who wrote a “Local View” commentary (that’s me), that’s fine. Do your own research. Just don’t do your research at InfoWars and Breitbart — and definitely not at Facebook.

Barry Dahl of Superior is an educator who taught at the University of Minnesota Duluth for six years and worked at Lake Superior College for 16 years, including 10 years as a dean and vice president. He works now for an online learning software company. He was an early user of Facebook when the platform first opened to the general public. To learn more about the evidence against Facebook, he recommends “The Great Hack,” an Emmy-nominated documentary on Netflix.

My Beer Experiment: What I Learned

I started 2019 with a personal mission to study my beer drinking habits and effects. I started the year drinking 50 beers in 50 days. Then I dove into the next 50 days without drinking any beers.

Hoops Brewing in Duluth

After drinking some great beers during the first 50 days, I had zero beers in the next 20 days. Then I quit. Although this was not an actual New Year’s Resolution, this plan was very similar to one. And like most resolutions, I gave up on it. Here’s what I learned.

  • As much as I like a good craft beer (it’s a lot, trust me), 50 beers in 50 days was actually a significant increase in my normal beer consumption.
  • Several times I had to force it (by drinking a beer or two) in order to stay on pace. Not a big deal, but those beers were less enjoyable than the times that I really wanted to have one. I guess that makes sense.
  • I think my sweet spot is about 5 beers a week on average. That usually works out to 2 or 3 beers about twice a week. In other words, 35 beers in 50 days would have been a more normal pace for me. I didn’t realize that until I started down this path.
  • I’m to the point where I would rather not drink a beer at all than drink a crappy beer.
  • I gave up the experiment after 20 days because I really missed my beers. I didn’t feel any better or worse (physically) than during the first 50 days, but I felt like I was depriving myself of something I like…for no good reason.
  • I also noticed that I was drinking more coffee and more soda (pop?); neither of which is probably all that terrific for me.
  • Besides, I like having beers in social situations, such as when I play poker a couple of times a week. Also when I visit friends; such as my upcoming trips to Tucson, Portland, and elsewhere.

So, there you have it. Call me a beer drinker.

I gave up on Facebook, but I’m still an avid user of Untappd (I’m dahlontap) so I can get a mild social media fix while tracking my beer consumption and learning about new opportunities to make myself hoppy. Cheers!

The Beatles and #MeToo

It was 55 years ago today (Feb. 1, 1964) when I Wanna Hold Your Hand became the first #1 hit for The Beatles in the USA. I was a very young lad when The Fab Four made their big splash. I went along for the ride because my two older brothers were in high school at the time and bought all the albums. So, I’ve been a Beatles fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can only remember a little bit of the music that I listened to before I listened to The Beatles.

I have several favorites, or near-favorites on my Beatles playlist. There’s one song that haunts me. For many years I paid no attention to the lyrics. This song has a great beat and an awesome sound. It’s a real toe-tapper. But then there’s the lyrics.

Lyrics – Run For Your Life

  • I’d rather see you dead, little girl,
  • Than to be with another man.
  • You’d better keep your head, little girl,
  • Or I won’t know where I am.
  • You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl,
  • Hide your head in the sand, little girl,
  • Catch you with another man,
  • That’s the end ah, little girl.
  • Well you know that I’m a wicked guy
  • And I was born with a jealous mind.
  • And I can’t spend my whole life
  • Tryin’ just to make you toe the line.

Repeat 2nd stanza.

  • Let this be a sermon,
  • I mean ev’rything I said.
  • Baby, I’m determined
  • And I’d rather see you dead.

Repeat 2nd stanza

Repeat 1st Stanza

Repeat 2nd Stanza

John Lennon wrote these words. I guess this was before he tried to be a pacifist. He admitted in a 1980 Playboy interview that he treated women badly. “All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit.”

I’ve heard many people argue that even though John wrote these lyrics, he wasn’t writing about himself. Apparently, he was writing a story about some crazy jealous dude – but not him. Based on his own words as a younger lad, and based on his statements that he wished he had never written this song – I tend to believe that it’s autobiographical.

It’s a shame that this song has such nasty lyrics. Take this same beat and melody and put it with decent lyrics and it would probably be my favorite Beatles song. Bummer.

I’m a Prepper, a Death Prepper

Over the past few months, I’ve been preparing to die. Or at least I’ve started preparing for that inevitability. It’s actually been kind of fun.

I don’t actually believe that I’m going to die soon; not that one can ever be too sure about those things. I don’t have a terminal disease, nor a death wish. I’ve just seen a lot of people die in the past few years, and I want to be ready.

The grim reaper awaits all of us.

As a death prepper, here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

  • I’ve written my own obit. It’s ready to go, once somebody else is able to add the date and cause of death.
  • I’ve chosen the songs I want to be played at my death party (or memorial service, if you will).
  • I’ve prepared a shared online spreadsheet to make sure my wife has access to all the financial accounts information.
  • I’ve decided on cremation, because I really like the word “cremains.” (I hope you cremember me when I’m gone.)
  • My headstone is being prepared. Tasteful little thing, no 24K gold or diamond studs. I don’t feel like I actually need a headstone anywhere in the world, but my wife would like to have our markers side-by-side. That’s a good enough reason for me.

I do have a couple of things left to do:

  • I’m working on a solution that will delete almost all of my online accounts when I die, except for this blog and my Twitter feed. I’ll leave those for my kids to look back on someday.
  • I still need to prepare a will. This should be moot, because I expect my wife to live 30 more years after I die, and everything goes to her with or without a will. However, it’s not a sure thing that I go first, so a last will and testament needs to be prepared.
  • I’m going to prepare a 5-minute video about my life. My whole life condensed into 5 minutes. That’s going to be a challenge. Lots of good stuff will hit the cutting room floor, but death is cruel – and most people will start to check out after five minutes anyway. Why a 5-minute video? I don’t know; I just want to.
  • And lastly, to steal phrase, I need to get busy living.

If and when you see my obit, you’ll see that I don’t use the phrase “he passed away.” You don’t pass away – you fail away. You didn’t pass, you failed. You failed to live forever. Death is not a hall pass, it’s a pink slip.