Captioning can have more impact than you think

This article was first published in December 2015 in the UK's 'Politics First' Magazine published by Policy-UK

Life is often the story of unintended consequences. Sometimes, the greatest opportunities arise when we grasp how actions aimed at one purpose can in fact also have broader impact.  This has certainly been the case when it comes to the provision of television access services.

The BBC, supported by the policy environment in the UK, has lead the world with the introduction of program subtitling (closed captioning) across multiple platforms.  Quality captions ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access television and video content on the same terms as their hearing friends, but captioning has also had major impacts well beyond deafness.  As discussed during the CAP THAT! campaign and National Literacy and Numeracy week, multiple studies around the world have shown that children who watch television with the captions on screen have higher literacy skills than children who don’t use captions.  Similarly, people for whom English is an additional language have been proven to significantly improve their English reading and comprehension skills if they enable captions as part of their viewing.  Overall, captioning can increase the literacy skills for people of all ages, improving their vocabulary, word recognition, comprehension and reading.

Our business, Ai-Media, launched in Australia over 10 years ago as a television captioning provider.  As a for profit social enterprise, we then turned our minds to how captions could transform access beyond television, to real-life situations.  

We started where the need was greatest - in the classroom - developing our Ai-Live service that involves us listening to the teacher over a phone line and providing a real-time, quality transcript to students in that classroom via their tablet.  The results have been fantastic, not just for students with a hearing impairment but also for students with a broad range of learning difficulties, including students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). 

The more we tried and tested this service, we came to realise that the benefits extended even beyond the students.  Analysis by The University of Melbourne, who were conducting an independent review of our Ai-Live pilot in Victorian classrooms, found that the teachers were using the transcripts provided to them at the end of class to reflect upon what had happened in the classroom and to improve their own teaching practice.  This has lead to an exciting collaboration between ourselves and the University as we have developed a new suite of products, the Visible Classroom, which use a combination of transcripts and analytics to improve teaching effectiveness. 

In under a decade, captioning has moved beyond the television, to a tool of universal design in mainstream education settings, and a powerful tool to improve the quality of teaching in all classrooms.

The UK has been an integral part of Ai-Media’s journey.  In 2013 we commenced business in the UK to take the Ai-Live product into schools, university and businesses.  We undertook further pilots of the Visible Classroom concept in 10 schools across the UK, with funding from the Education Endowment Fund and we have undertaken some in depth exploration of how captioning can help children with ASD.  To help develop our business further, we were privileged to partner with Nesta Impact Investments, who supported us through their Digital Makers Fund. 

Our mission at Ai-Media is to have global impact, one word at a time.  Whether we are providing access to entertainment, news and current affairs, work or education, or we are helping to improve the quality of teaching in classrooms around the world, we believe that innovation and commitment can make the world a better place.  We are grateful that the UK has been a welcoming and supportive market, and we intend that the UK will play a pivotal role in our future.