A Rising Tide: How Closed Captions Can Benefit All Students

Key Takeaways

  • Regardless of whether they have a disability of any kind, a majority of students use closed captions at least some of the time.

  • Roughly 90 percent of all students who use closed captions find them at least moderately helpful for learning.

  • Specific ways in which closed captions can aid learning include comprehension, accuracy, engagement, and retention.

When we think of closed captions in higher education, the focus is often on students with disabilities, particularly those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In fall 2015, the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit conducted a national survey with 3Play Media to learn more about how all students — those with disabilities and those without — use and perceive closed captions in relation to their learning experiences in the college classroom. This article reports on results of the survey (a full version of the report can be found on the 3Play Media website).

For the recruitment of the student participants, a comprehensive list of U.S. institutions was compiled from membership lists of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, EDUCAUSE, the Association on Higher Education and Disability, and WCET, using publicly available information. We notified institutional representatives (provosts, student affairs representatives, and/or directors of disability services offices) by e-mail about the study, and we also used social media and word-of-mouth communication to spread the word. This effort resulted in 15 university partners.

More than 2,000 students at those 15 institutions across the United States responded to our online survey. Of those reporting, the average age was 24.5, with a range of 18–72. The majority of the respondents were female (62.8 percent). The largest percentage were seniors (24.2 percent); graduate students made up 12.8 percent.

The racial and ethnic mix of respondents was as follows:

  • White: 68.3 percent
  • Two or more races: 9.3 percent
  • Asian: 7.2 percent
  • Black/African American: 2.6 percent
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 1.3 percent
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander: 1 percent

Just over 10 percent did not respond to this item; on a separate item, 11.2 percent self-identified as Hispanic.

Results

For the purpose of analysis, student responses to four questions were used to create groups based on reported disabilities. Students were asked whether they:

  • Were diagnosed with a disability (and what type of disability)
  • Had a disability other than the types listed
  • Were registered with an office of disability services at their institution
  • Required academic accommodations

Students who responded "yes" to any of these questions, regardless of their type of disability, comprised the students reporting disabilities group. Those who responded "no" to all of these items comprised the students not reporting disabilities group. The results showed that 412 students (19.4 percent) reported a disability, 1,547 (72.9 percent) did not report a disability, and 163 (7.7 percent) did not respond to any of the four questions.

Use of Closed Captions

Participants were asked how often they use closed captions when they are available on course videos. Among all respondents, 35 percent said they often or always use closed captioning when available, and an additional 19 percent said sometimes. Thus, more than half (54 percent) of the respondents use closed captions at least some of the time.

Do students who report disabilities differ from students who do not report disabilities in their use of closed captions?

Table 1 shows how participants responded to this item. As this table shows, a larger percentage of students reporting disabilities (26.2 percent) indicated they always use closed captions when available, compared to students not reporting disabilities (15.6 percent). However, the percentages for often and sometimes were similar for the two groups.

Table 1. Frequency of closed caption use

Frequency

Students Reporting Disabilities

Students Not Reporting Disabilities

Always

26.2%

15.6%

Often

16.5%

16.9%

Sometimes

18.4%

18.2%

Seldom

14.8%

21.2%

Never

23.1%

27.1%

Did not answer

1.0%

1.0%

 

The results of combining the percentages for the responses of sometimes, often, and always are shown in Figure 1. This figure reveals that 61.1 percent of students reporting disabilities use captions at least sometimes. Among students not reporting disabilities, more than 50 percent said they use closed captions at least sometimes. By a gap of about 10 percentage points, more students not reporting disabilities indicated that they use closed captions seldom or never than students reporting disabilities (48.3 percent vs. 37.9 percent).

Figure 1. Student use of closed captioning when available
Figure 1. Student use of closed captioning when available

Helpfulness of Closed Captions

Students from both groups (those who reported having a disability and those who did not) who indicated that they use closed captions (n = 1,532) were asked how helpful they found the closed captions. Among those students, 59.1 percent reported that the closed captions in course videos are very or extremely helpful, and an additional 29 percent said they were moderately helpful. Thus, more than 88 percent of student respondents who use closed captions said they are at least moderately helpful.

Do students with disabilities differ from students without disabilities in their ratings of the helpfulness of closed captions?

Table 2 shows respondents who reported using closed captions in course videos, broken out by the two groups. Among students reporting disabilities, the largest percentage (33.2 percent) indicated that captions are extremely helpful, compared to 21.1 percent of the students not reporting disabilities. Similar percentages of students in both groups indicated that captions are very helpful.

Table 2. Helpfulness of closed captions

Helpfulness

Students Reporting Disabilities

Students Not Reporting Disabilities

Extremely

33.2%

21.1%

Very

32.3%

36.1%

Moderately

24.9%

30.5%

Slightly

7.3%

10.5%

Not at all

2.2%

1.3%

Did not answer

0.4%

Combining the categories of moderately, very, and extremely helpful shows that a very large percentage of both groups indicated that closed captions are at least moderately helpful (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Helpfulness of closed captions
Figure 2. Helpfulness of closed captions

Closed Captions as a Learning Aid

Students from both groups who indicated that they use closed captions were asked to indicate whether any of the following are reasons why they use closed captions. Figure 3 shows that almost two-thirds of respondents indicated that closed captions help them focus, retain information, and overcome poor audio. In addition, more than 40 percent indicated that they use closed captions for reasons related to sensitive environments (i.e., public places or libraries in which they cannot use sound).

Figure 3. Reasons for using closed captions
Figure 3. Reasons for using closed captions

All students were asked to describe in their own words why closed captions are helpful. A total of 1,210 open-ended responses were coded into six main themes, which were similar to the results of the closed-ended question about helpfulness shown in figure 3. Table 3 shows the percentage of responses within each of the themes. Three-quarters of respondents indicated that closed captions are helpful because they are learning aids. A large percentage also indicated that captions are helpful because they help with poor audio quality. Six percent stated that they use captions for the accommodation of a learning or physical disability. Just over 5 percent indicated that with captions on, it is easier for students to read along or take notes.

Table 3. Themes of why closed captions are helpful

Benefit

Frequency

Learning aid

75.5%

Remedy for poor audio quality

22.4%

Clarification for instructors who are difficult to understand

8.3%

Environment

6.7%

Disability accommodation

6.0%

Convenience

5.1%

Due to the large number of responses (913) under the theme of captions as a learning aid, these responses were coded into four subthemes:

  • Comprehension: 51.9 percent of the responses were related to how captions help students understand, organize, and learn the information in videos.
  • Accuracy: 33.4 percent were related to how captions help with details, terminology, and spelling in videos.
  • Engagement: 20.3 percent were related to how captions help students focus on the content of videos.
  • Retention: 14.6 percent were related to how captions help students retain information in the videos through reading and studying.

Difficulty with Hearing

All respondents were asked a specific question about difficulty with hearing; 374 (17.6 percent) indicated they did have difficulty hearing, while 1,584 (74.6 percent) indicated they did not. Another 164 (7.7 percent) did not respond to this item.

How does the frequency of use of closed captions differ for students who have no difficulty hearing compared to students who have difficulty hearing?

Table 4 shows the frequency of use of closed captions for students with and without difficulty hearing. Although one would expect that students who experience difficulty hearing will use closed captions at a higher frequency, our research found that respondents who do not have difficulty hearing also use closed captions with some frequency. Only a little less than 30 percent of student respondents who do not have difficulty hearing said that they never use closed captions.

Table 4. Frequency of closed caption use

Frequency

Difficulty with Hearing

No Difficulty with Hearing

Always

31.0%

14.6%

Often

19.0%

16.4%

Sometimes

18.4%

18.2%

Seldom

16.0%

20.8%

Never

15.0%

28.9%

Did not respond

0.5%

1.1%

Figure 4 shows the combined results of the sometimes, often, and always categories of frequency of use. Students who reported having no difficulty hearing indicated they use captions at a fairly high rate, with almost 50 percent using captions at least sometimes. As expected, student respondents with difficulty hearing reported using closed captions more frequently, with more than 68 percent indicating using captions at least sometimes.

Figure 4. Frequency of closed caption use
Figure 4. Frequency of closed caption use

Frequent Users of Captions

To further explore perceptions of the helpfulness of captions, we conducted a subgroup analysis for the 678 students who indicated that they often or always use closed captions when they are available and who answered the disability questions. The responses of frequent caption users were analyzed by their reported disability status, and table 5 shows the results. Not surprisingly, the two groups show similar response patterns. Combining the moderately, very, and extremely helpful response choices, 98.8 percent of respondents reporting disabilities indicated that captions are at least moderately helpful, which is very close to the 97.4 percent of responses of students not reporting disabilities.

Table 5. Helpfulness of closed captions among frequent caption users

Helpfulness

Students Reporting Disabilities* (n = 176)

Students Not Reporting Disabilities (n = 502)

Extremely

50.0%

40.5%

Very

33.5%

44.2%

Moderately

15.3%

12.7%

Sightly

0.6%

1.4%

Not at all

0.6%

0.8%

Did not answer

0.4%

Conclusions

The results of this study show that more than half of students are using closed captions in their educational videos at least sometimes. Although one might expect students with disabilities to report using captions at much higher rates, this study shows that students not reporting disabilities use captions almost as frequently, with more than 50 percent using them sometimes or more often; this is only about 10 percentage points less than those reporting disabilities.

Among those who reported using closed captions, the vast majority find the captions to be at least moderately helpful. This rating varied somewhat by ability status — the proportion of students reporting disabilities who indicated that captions are extremely helpful was more than 10 percentage points higher than the proportion of students not reporting disabilities who said the same. Overall, ratings of the helpfulness of closed captions were similar for all students, regardless of whether they reported having a disability.

When asked why captions are helpful, respondents overall expressed strong agreement that captions help students focus, retain information, and overcome poor audio. Open-ended responses further illustrate that students find captions to be helpful learning aids. Captions help students with comprehension, accuracy, engagement, and the retention of information transmitted in course videos.

A closer look reveals that almost half of the students who reported having no difficulty hearing use closed captions sometimes or more often, compared to two-thirds of students reporting difficulty with hearing. Further, the majority of frequent caption users find closed captions to be considerably helpful, regardless of their ability status.

In this study we found that closed captions are being used by a wide range of students, perhaps wider than one might guess. The results suggest that we need to look further into how and why students of all ability statuses are using accommodations such as closed captions to help them learn. In the meantime, this research demonstrates that providing closed captions for video content not only benefits students with various disabilities but also has the potential to improve learning for students who report having no disability.


Mary Ellen Dello Stritto is assistant director of research, Ecampus, at Oregon State University.

Kathryn Linder is director of research, Ecampus, at Oregon State University.

© 2017 Mary Ellen Dello Stritto and Kathryn Linder. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.