During the pandemic, the number of recorded lectures has increased sharply. On the learning platform connected to a course, students have access to pre-produced video and audio recordings.
Since last autumn, a new law has required all websites run by state agencies and other public bodies to meet the EU’s requirements for web accessibility. One of these requirements is that video and audio recordings are to be subtitled if they are on the web.
For higher education institutions, there has been a lack of clarity about whether the legal requirement also applies to learning platforms, but now a working group within the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), has put its foot down.
“In our discussions, which have also involved the Agency for Digital Government, we have come to the conclusion that the learning platforms are also covered by the legislation,” says the working group’s chair, Peder Tjäderborn, unit manager at the Student Services Office at Umeå University.
SUHF will soon issue a consultation document with a recommendation to all higher education institutions that they produce subtitles in order to also meet the legal requirements with regard to their learning platforms. The requirement only applies to pre-produced video and audio recordings, however, and not to live lectures when streamed on services such as Zoom.
Temporary exemption for older learning platforms
Tommy Olsson, an accessibility expert at the Agency for Digital Government (DIGG), confirms that discussion about learning platforms has gone on since the requirement that all public bodies’ websites be accessible came into force on 23 September last year. The requirements are contained in the Accessibility for Digital Public Services Act, which in turn is based on an EU directive.
“The learning platforms are regarded as extranets or intranets, and they are also covered by the law,” he says.
The law makes exceptions for older learning platforms, i.e. those which came into use before September 2019. But this exemption is temporary and only applies until the platforms undergo a comprehensive review. When they are updated, they will also be covered by the law.
“The exemption exists precisely because learning platforms are an internal extranet and the legislator wants the authorities to focus first on the external part of the web,” says Olsson.
Extra work a concern for teachers
DIGG has received many calls from university teachers who are worried about the extra work that the subtitling requirement entails. “We realise that this can be very resource-intensive work,” says Olsson.
The law contains a provision that it may be considered unreasonably burdensome to make certain content accessible in certain circumstances.
“If the recording is only to be used for a specific time-limited course and a limited number of students, there may be reason to invoke the exemption,” says Olsson. “This presupposes that you know the students and know that none of them has a disability. Then it can be argued that the expected benefits of subtitling are very small in relation to the cost.”
The law also requires audio description, but there it is possible to minimise or eliminate the need by planning the production.
“If the speaker says everything that is shown in the picture, no separate audio descripton is needed,” says Olsson.
“Could slow digital development”
The President of SULF, Mats Ericson, is a university teacher at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and has been recording video lectures for several years. In that role, he sees a danger that the requirements to provide subtitles may stop the digital development that has gained momentum during the pandemic.
“We are a state authority and therefore must abide by the law. But if we are forced to put extra work into subtitling our recorded lectures, then many teachers will no longer record. And then everyone suffers, not just those who have hearing difficulties,” he says.
The automatic subtitling systems used by higher education institutions are not 100% reliable and require post-processing by the teacher.
“There is a sound pedagogical reason for subtitling,” says Ericson, “and we will not go back to how things were. To meet the legal requirements, my suggestion is that we use the subtitling services that exist and settle for a decent result. We must not let the best become the enemy of the good.”