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Captions: Questions and Answers for Faculty

Dear Faculty,

Teaching remotely, faculty at major universities in the U.S. and abroad are facing new responsibilities, new limitations, and new opportunities. While many of us were not ready for the necessary drastic changes in our approach to teaching university classes, we have many options to help us continue to offer responsible and effective teaching at UC Davis. For example, research has shown that instructional video can be an effective mode for delivering course content

In order to provide all students equitable access to this helpful format for online instruction, however, we will find it both legally and pragmatically necessary to consider the presence and quality of closed captioning. Students who are deaf and hard of hearing need closed captions to access video content, and closed captioning is also necessary or helpful for multimodal learning, language learning, students with learning disabilities and cognitive impairments, video consumption in noisy, quiet, or mobile environments, and the use of devices that cannot produce audio. Given these learning implications and limitations, how can we know that our instructional video content is accessible to all students and compliant with accessibility laws? The following questions and answers briefly introduce closed captioning basics, the legal landscape for captioning in public higher education, and information about captioning services available to UC Davis faculty.

What are the differences between closed captions and other text-based tools for video accessibility? 

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines captions as the “text version of the speech and non-speech audio information needed to understand the content” of video. Closed captions offer flexibility for users in their capacity to be turned on or off, whereas open captions are displayed all the time. The terms subtitles and closed captions are sometimes used interchangeably since they both can convey the language of the spoken audio and can be turned on or off. However, subtitles are often differentiated from closed captions by their purpose, which is to translate spoken audio into different languages. Transcripts reflect the same content as captions and can also be translated into different languages, but rather than being displayed on the screen like closed captions and subtitles, they are instead delivered in a document format that students can access asynchronously or synchronously with the video.

What are the federal accessibility laws that apply to public postsecondary institutions’ use of instructional video and closed captioning?

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) requires federal communications law and policy to remain up-to-date and compatible with contemporary video technologies and other innovations in communication. Federal disability rights laws that are relevant for instructional video use in public higher education include the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 requires public universities and other programs receiving federal financial assistance to afford equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities, and Section 508 requires federal agencies to make internet communication technology equivalently accessible for people with disabilities and those without disabilities. Under the the Americans With Disabilities Act, Title II reflects Section 504’s mandate of promoting equal educational opportunity and preventing discrimination by requiring public universities and other state and local government activities to provide auxiliary aids and services in accessible formats to students in a timely manner. Non-compliance with these disability rights laws may result in formal complaints filed with federal agencies and lawsuits brought to court. 

What criteria does video captioning need to meet in order to comply with accessibility standards and legal mandates?

In addition to the W3C’s four principles of accessibility for perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust web content, the Federal Communications Commission’s closed captioning rules provide the following standards for creating accessible captions: 1) accurate captions that equal the speech and sounds in the video, 2) synchronous captions that are displayed at a readable speed in real-time with the speech and sounds in the video, 3) complete captions that run the full length of the video, and 4) properly placed captions that are displayed fully and do not obstruct either critical visual content or other parts of the captions themselves. With regards to accuracy, the specific definition states that “captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible,” indicating that exactness is the goal for verbal and non-verbal captioning.

What captioning services are available to UC Davis faculty?

Machine-generated captions are provided at no cost through Academic Technology Services, and are automatically generated for any video recorded or uploaded using AggieVideo ( Depending on the length of the video, it can take up to 48 hours for the captions to be ready. These machine-generated captions are only 75-85% accurate, so you should review and edit them to catch errors, to clarify spelling of names or technical vocabulary, and to improve overall readability and clarity. The research currently suggests that 98% of words in a text must be known in order to ensure adequate comprehension, and that anything under 90% is considered “an extreme handicap” (Schmitt et al., 2011). It generally takes three times the length of the video for a faculty member or TA to review and edit captions. Professional (human-generated) captions, which are 99% accurate, are also available for $1.50 per minute. If you have funding to pay for professional captions, as opposed to the no-cost machine-generated captions, please contact and ATS staff can assist you in ordering those. 

As all of us consider video as a helpful, and for some, necessary complement to other modes of remote instruction, using captions will help to ensure that all of our students benefit from our recorded talks, mini-lectures, explanations and exemplifications of course content. Captions will also provide an additional way of capturing some of your course’s most dynamic content in a text format that your students can review while working for the learning objectives set for your course. If you have any questions about teaching with video, please contact our instructional designers at


Larissa Saco, Graduate Student Researcher, Academic Technology Services

Dr. Margaret Merrill, Instructional Designer and Educational Technologist, Academic Technology Services  

The intention of the present post is to share publicly available information on accessibility laws for educational purposes only, not to provide legal advice.

Post Author: Alexandria Rockey

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