If We Don’t, Someone Else Will

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The United States is falling behind. For many, that’s not a surprising statement, but others will find it hard to believe.

We see statistics summarizing our declining science education, our lack of world-class Internet infrastructure, and many more. What we haven’t seen much of are examples of us falling behind in innovation. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s been predicted for quite a long time now by some more pessimistic prognosticators but not demonstrated.

My field is science, and my current work centers on technology to support science education. It’s no surprise that my example comes from that area. For years, I’ve watched as company after company (and even individuals) make science simulations and attempt to sell them as science “labs.” Of course, they’re not truly labs, but that’s beside the point.

sebit2These companies all have produced essentially the same product. It’s a Flash-based animation system wherein students make some choices of parameters and see the result. These animations are two-dimensional and have little support added online for learning and essentially none for tracking. I don’t have to list them here because a quick Internet search for “virtual lab” will give you lots of examples.

So, from where does the first visually appealing, three-dimensional simulation system sold in the United States come from? Turkey! You may have thought of Turkey as some backwater country with lots of small, dusty villages. Not so. It’s a vibrant, secular society that’s put a premium on education in general and science education in particular. Furthermore, they’ve committed to using online education to reach their goal of an educated society. Sebit Technologies has been created by Turkey’s telecommunications leader, Türk Telekom. With all of the money at their disposal, they have made some real waves in online education.

turk_telekomYou can bet that Turkey will not be the last place we see new competition for United States education dollars. Unless our country gets moving with true innovation, we’ll watch as more and more foreign-created innovations take over our schools (and other business markets).

As I’ve suggested before, teaching itself could eventually be handled offshore. Your children or grandchildren may be learning from teachers in India or China. That might sound quite cosmopolitan but will have a huge impact on one of our most stable professions — teaching.

We shouldn’t give up without a fight. It’s time for our government to foster real education innovation. I don’t mean with tax breaks or allowing free market forces to work. We must have serious investment by government in technology infrastructure for education. We may even have to put tariffs on these sort of imports for a while in order to get our companies back into the game. The alternative is just to sit back and let the rest of the world take over education in the United States.

Making Web Multimedia Accessible Needn’t Be Boring

claude80By Claude Almansi
Guest Author
7 November 2008

Some people see the legal obligation to follow Web content accessibility guidelines – whether of the W3C or, in the US, of section 508 – as leading to boring text-only pages. Actually, these guidelines do not exclude the use of multimedia on the web. They say that multimedia should be made accessible by “Providing equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content” and in particular: “For any time-based multimedia presentation (e.g., a movie or animation), synchronize equivalent alternatives (e.g., captions or auditory descriptions of the visual track) with the presentation.”[1]

This is not as bad a chore as it seems, and it can be shared between several people, even if they are not particularly tech-savvy or endowed with sophisticated tools.

Captioning with DotSUB.com

Phishing Scams in Plain English, by Lee LeFever[2], was uploaded to DotSub.com, and several volunteers did the captions in the different languages. The result can be embedded in a blog, a wiki or a web page. The captions also appear as copyable text under dotsub“Video Transcription,” which is handy if people discussing the video want to quote from it. Besides, a text transcription of a video also tends to raise its ranking in search engines, which still mainly scan text.

The only problem is that the subtitles cover a substantial part of the video.

Captioning with SMIL

This problem can be avoided by captioning with SMIL, which stands for Synchronized Multimedia Interaction Language. A SMIL file, written in XML, works as a “cogwheel” between the original video and other files (including captioning files) it links to and synchronizes.[3]

The advantage, compared to DotSUB, is that captions stay put in a separate field under the video and don’t interfere.

This is why, after having tried DotSUB, I chose the SMIL solution for: “Missing in Pakistan – Sottotitolazione Multilingue.[4]

So far, the simple text timecoded files for SMIL captioning still have to be made off-line, though Alessio Cartocci – who conceived the player in the example above – has already made a beta version of an online SMIL captioning tool.

Captioning with SMIL Made Easy on Webmultimediale.it

The Missing in Pakistan example is on Webmultimediale.org, the site where the WebMultimediale project team experiments with the creative potential of applying accessibility guidelines to online multimedia – for instance, in collaboration with theatrical companies.

web_multiHowever, the project also has a public video sharing and captioning platform, Webmultimediale.it, where everyone can upload a video and its captioning file to produce a captioned video for free. The site is fairly bilingual, Italian-English. By default, you can only upload one captioning file, but you can contact Roberto Ellero, the founder of the project, through http://www.webmultimediale.org/contatti.php if you wish to add more captions.

Webmultimediale.it also has a video tutorial in Italian on how to produce a time-coded captioning file using MAGpie, which is only accessible when you are signed in, but as it is in Italian, English-speaking users might prefer to use the MAGpie Documentation[5,6] directly.

Other Creative Potentialities of SMIL

As can be seen in the MAGpie Documentation and in the W3C Synchronized Multimedia page[3], SMIL also enables the synchronization of an audio description file and even of a second video file, usually meant for sign language translation. While these features are primarily meant to facilitate access to deaf and blind people, they can also be used creatively to enhance all users’ experience of a video.