Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 31, 2000

ISU pioneers distance captioning in classrooms

by Anne Krapfl
Hearing impaired students at Iowa State are the first in the country to use some classroom technology that helps them get the most from class lectures - - with a minimal amount of fuss. Distance captioning lets students read the instructor's lecture on a laptop computer with about a one-second delay.

The process involves two phone lines, an instructor wearing a microphone wired to a cellular phone, a stenographer in a remote location -- Des Moines, Atlanta or Boulder, it doesn't matter -- and the computer.

The instructor's comments are relayed to the stenographer on one line, then clerked in by the stenographer and relayed as text on the second phone line back to the student's laptop screen -- all nearly in "real time."

The technology was piloted with two courses last fall. This spring, 21 courses were distance-captioned, benefiting 13 hearing-impaired students.

The new process is an improvement over the old, in which a stenographer accompanied a student to class and transcribed the lecture on-site. It eliminates travel time and expense for the stenographer, and allows the student to be less conspicuous in a classroom of peers.

"Some probably felt they were bringing their mother and all her equipment into class with them," said Robyn Mengwasser, a Des Moines-based captioner who also hires stenographers from around the country to do distance captioning for Iowa State students. "I miss being with the students, but this allows them to be more independent."

It is each student's responsibility to arrive early for class, retrieve all the hardware from a closet and set it up.

"Our students are very computer-savvy, which is a big part of what makes this possible," said Sharon McGuire, director of the Academic Success Center. The center coordinates academic services for students with disabilities of all kinds.

Matt Darbyshire, who manages classroom technology services for the Instructional Technology Center, said the new process was a matter of "synthesizing" existing technology to meet a need.

"The service is expensive, but this maximizes the talents of people in great demand," he said.

While students like the freedom, it was a shortage of stenographers that led ISU officials to look for a better option. An FCC ruling (effective Jan. 1) requiring television stations in top media markets nationally to provide real-time close captioning boosted the demand for captioners. Mengwasser said most stenographers do news captioning year-round and pick up other seasonal assignments.

McGuire said not all hearing-impaired students request the new system. Many read lips well enough to follow their class lectures. Other options the university provides include signing, note taking and on-site captioning.

McGuire said the next improve-ment for distance captioning will be to use a single Internet line, instead of two phone lines, which will eliminate phone leasing fees and long- distance phone bills, and make classes "portable" since it's less costly to activate and use Internet lines.

Darbyshire said new software is being written aimed at overcoming the "packetizing" that happens to data transmitted via the Internet, creating lulls in transmission. A campus captioning committee hopes to test that software in April.

Down the road several years may come voice-activated software that would eliminate the necessity for the captioner. Some programs exist now, but Mengwasser said they aren't accurate at normal speaking speeds (as high as 225 words per minute) and so aren't useful yet to students.

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