Volume IV Number 3, September 1997

Remote Realtime Captioning For Classroom Participation by Deaf and Hard Of Hearing Students

Jeffrey B. Bishop, MS
Carole M. Collier
University of Iowa


A remote realtime captioning system has been in use at the University of Iowa since August of 1996 to allow Deaf and hard of hearing students to participate fully and independently in classes. Captioning is provided on a laptop computer system that the students take to class. The audio signal from the classroom microphone is transmitted via modem over a telephone line to the captioning service where a captioner transcribes the text of the lecture. This text is transmitted back to the student in the classroom via modem and is displayed on the computer. This article presents a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of remote realtime captioning and other communication options.


Sign language interpreters are frequently employed to allow Deaf and hard of hearing students to participate in classes. There are some problems associated with interpreter services: in many places, particularly rural areas, there is a limited supply of qualified interpreters to provide regular classroom service. Classes with unique or technical terminology may be difficult to interpret accurately. American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters do not provide a literal word-for-word translation, which means some material could be judged to be irrelevant, and therefore omitted, by the interpreter. Illness, bad weather or circumstances may make it necessary to recruit a substitute on short notice. Variance in fees charged by individual interpreters makes cost projection difficult. Furthermore, not all deaf and hard of hearing students a re fluent in sign language and some students prefer reading written English.

Providing interpreters instead of remote realtime captioning has some advantages. Since the interpreter is "on site," all conversation can be interpreted including speech not picked up by the microphone. An interpreter can immediately "voice" for the deaf student who wishes to ask questions or participate in a discussion. Students do not need to transport, assemble, or know how to use computer equipment. Additionally, there is no missed information due to technical problems.

Notetakers can be used to provide notes for deaf or hard of hearing students during classes. The notes are usually read after class , which may reduce the effectiveness of teaching. The student usually does not have access to the lecture material at the same time it is presented with visual aids, nor does the student have the opportunity to follow the notes and ask questions during the lecture. The primary advantage of notetakers is that this service can often be provided at little or no cost. Some instructors are willin g to provide the student a copy of their lecture notes and visual materials.

Assistive listening devices, including hearing aids and FM amplification systems, can be used by students in classrooms. Many classrooms and auditoriums are already equipped with FM transmitter systems so that students can readily use an FM receiver and a hearing aid to hear the lecture.

Some deaf and hard of hearing students are proficient in speechreading. This can be advantageous in situations where the student is in close proximity to the instructor and the instructor faces the student. In many classes, however, the instructor may be using a white board or overhead projector in a darkened room. Although speechreading can augment other methods, alone it is not sufficient for most students.


Captioning is typically generated using a stenotype machine. The stenotype machine incorporates the use of a shorthand notation so that entire words can be entered with one or two keystrokes us ing a chorded keyboard in which more than one key may be activated simultaneously. The stenotype machine can also store macros and abbreviations to increase the transcription rate and allow accurate entry of technical words and phrases. This technology can provide an almost verbatim rendering of the instructor's lecture.

Realtime captioning refers to captioning that is provided as class is in session. Several lines of text are displayed on a screen almost simultaneously with the lecture, allowing the student to read along with demonstrations and visual aids. Captioning can be provided either on-site or remotely.

On-site captioning is provided by a court reporter attending the class with the student and providing real-time writing of lecture material and class discussion in an accurate format. Everything said in the room has the potential of being captioned. On-site captioning has several of the same disadvantages as on-site sign language interpreters, including scheduling and locating replacements.

Remote captioning is provided by a captioner located at an off-site office receiving the audio transmission from the classroom. The captioning is then transmitted back to the classroom. This allows captioning services to be based in areas where there are sufficient numbers of qualified captioners. A service that has a staff of captioners can meet a wider range of scheduling demands and can provide backup staff in cases of illness or absence. This greatly reduces the scheduling burden on the campus staff. Class schedules can be given to the captioning service, which will schedule captioners appropriately. Economic advantages of having a staff of captioners serving several customers without travel expenses could result in lower rates than interpreting or on-site captioners. The primary disadvantage is that remote captioning is limited by the capability of the microphone system in the room. Normally, only the instructor wears a microphone. Student participation may be hindered, because questions and discussion would not be captioned unless repeated by the instructor.


In the Fall 1996 semester, The University of Iowa through Student Disability Services provided remote realtime captioning in four classes for two students. This service was expanded to six courses for three students in the Spring 1997 semester. This service was initially provided on an informal basis as a "pilot project." Currently, The University is accepting bids to establish a three-year contract, with the option to renew every year.

The present implementation of remote realtime captioning requires the student to bring a PC compatible laptop computer (486 or bette r) to class. The computer is provided either by the University from an equipment rental pool, or by the student (sometimes provided by State Rehabilitation Services). A modem with simultaneous voice/data transmission capability is supplied by the captioning service along with appropriate software. The University pays a refundable deposit for the modems which allow remote realtime captioning using only a single phone line. In most cases, this phone line must be installed and/or activated before classes begin. The service uses a single phone line for simultaneous transmission of voice and data. This is an important feature, since many classrooms and other facilities have only a single line available. Some services use one line for voice to the service and another line for data from the service.

A wireless microphone system, currently provided by the University, is used to transmit audio from the classroom. The instructor wea rs a lapel microphone with a small transmitter, and the student plugs the receiver into the modem for transmission to the captioning service. We have had some success with a low-cost wireless microphone system (approx. $150) but need a more powerful system for so me rooms (approx. $500).

The service provider to date has been RapidText of Newport Beach, California (Voice 714/644-6500, TDD 714/644-7131). At the beginning of each semester, a glossary of terms from the textbook for each course is sent to the service so the stenotype systems can be programmed to use macros and abbreviations. Also, a copy of the class syllabus allows the service to plan for days that classes do no t meet and for exam sessions where captioning is not required. The service schedules captioners and stenotype stations for each class.


Since the service has several stenotype stations, each with a separate phone line, the service provides a list of phone numbers to c all from each class to initiate service. The phone numbers (along with long distance access codes) are programmed into the captioning software at the beginning of the semester. Before each class, the student sets up the system by connecting the modem, phone line , microphone, computer, and power supplies. The student then gives the wireless lapel microphone to the instructor. When the software is launched, it displays a menu with the name of each class. The student makes a selection from the menu, and the appropriate number for the stenotype station at the service is dialed. A pre-programmed message is then sent to the service that indicates the phone number in the classroom from which the student is initiating the call. The service then returns the student's call and makes a connection. This procedure is used so that the long distance charges are paid by the service provider.

Once the connection is established, the captioner transcribes any speech transmitted by the microphone. A word-for-word transcript ion is displayed on the student's computer approximately two seconds after it is spoken. The captioning of the lecture appears on the screen and is saved automatically as a text file for later use. Students have the capability of typing their own notes during the lecture in a separate window and these are also saved automatically. During class, the student can communicate with the captioner by typing in a message box. This is often used to ask questions such as "Can you hear?"


An important consideration for implementation of remote realtime captioning is troubleshooting and technical support. The wireless microphone, computer, and modem all must be connected properly by the student, usually in less than 10 minutes before class starts. The students must be trained to connect and use the computer system, and technical assistance may be needed if problems occur. The wireless microphone system uses batteries which must be replaced periodically. The software and files on the computer can become corrupted and should be backed up. Consultation with technical support from the service provider may be required for audio problems or connection failure.

The University of Iowa has a Coordinator of Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students working with Student Disability Services and an Assistive Technology Specialist working with Information Technology Services to provide support for remote realtime captioning. University staff technical support for remote realtime captioning averages about 5 hours per week, with more support required du ring testing and set up at the beginning of each semester, and less later in the semester.

Since the students have a computer, modem, and phone line in the classroom, they are able to send e-mail to local and remote support staff if they are experiencing a problem with the captioning. The students also use e-mail to inform the captioning service in advance when captioning service will not be required in class due to change in schedule, illness, or exam.


The captioning service has been used in courses that use technical terminology including microbiology, calculus, organic chemistry, and cognitive psychology. Based on the success of the "pilot project," The University of Iowa has decided to continue to offer remote realtime captioning, in addition to other communication options, on a permanent basis.


Student 1:

Q. What do you like best about captioning compared with interpreters in class?

A. Since I am not very skilled with sign language, I find that an information medium such as captioning is more closely related to my natural learning methods. Although captioning is not perfect, neither are interpreters. What I like best is that I do not have to concentrate too hard as I would with an interpreter. Also, the availability of a hard copy of notes from the captioning has proved helpful.

Q. What do you see as the most serious limitations or shortcomings of the captioning service now?

A. There are several. First of all, I feel the captioners lack a scientific vocabulary. Often words are misspelled or misused, therefore causing confusion for me. An obvious solution to this is to train the captioners so they may be familiar with a scientific vocabulary. I believe an interpreter may be slightly more accurate with science terms since they are in the classroom and can see what the professor is writing and will interpret the correct word for me. Other problems are the technical problems such as connection failure and disconnections during class. Although these are not exactly the most serious problems, they can be quite frustrating. The transporting and assembling of all the equipment can also cause a few problems although not serious.

Student 2:

Q. What do you like best about captioning compared with interpreters in class?

A. For the first time, I am able to take notes and read the professor's lecture verbatim simultaneously without missing any vital information. I also like the fact that I can always go back to the notes (or even print them out) at any given time - it is always available and it's really helpful because I can read over the information as many times as I'd like - it's like being able to bring a tape recorder to class like a lot of hearing people do - something that I, as a deaf person, never had the opportunity to do before. Another aspect of the captioning service that I really like is the fact that I am able to read the lecture word- for-word as oppose d to listening via an interpreter because in sign language, there is ONE sign for so many different words and sometimes it really matters which word the professor chose to use in presenting the information (particularly information requiring a lot of technical words) - It's also nice not having to rely on a fellow classmate for notes.

Q. What do you see as the most serious limitations or shortcomings of the captioning service now?

A. While there are a lot of positive things about the captioning system, there are some disadvantages that are inevitable such as not knowing exactly what is going on if a remote connection is not established (which does not happen often at all) or if there is a problem with the microphone, I can't test it myself because I can't hear it to check if the audio is coming through. There also have been problems with static but that hasn't happened in a long time. Another thing is sometimes when the microphone doesn't work, the internal microphone in the modem can sometimes pick up what the professor is saying if he/she is close enough. But if he/she is fa r away from where the modem's internal microphone is, the captioner won't be able to pick it up and then the person using the captioning service misses out on what is being said. There isn't a system that is error-proof but the pros to using this system greatly outweigh the cons.

Student 3:

Q. What do you like best about captioning compared with interpreters in class?

A. Without a doubt, the major advantage is simply having lectures on screen in front of me, in the event that I need to look away o r jot down some notes. With an interpreter, I must watch the interpreter at all times, otherwise I will miss information. Interpreters can never translate a lecture word-for-word - it is much too cumbersome and time-consuming. Thus, there is a potential that an interpreter may decide a piece of lecture material is relatively unimportant, when in fact it is, and neglects to translate it to the student (hopefully this does not happen too often!). Since interpreters must condense lecture material, it is not the same as hear ing a lecture in a professor's words. In contrast, captioning is able to capture (hopefully) every word the professor says, thus transmitting the full original content of the lecture to the student. Another handy feature of captioning is that it saves the lecture s automatically, so that I may refer to it like any other form of lecture verbatim. I've found that for a hearing-impaired person, t his can be a life-saver, as much of class time is spent trying to understand what is being said, rather than completely absorbing the material.

Q. What do you see as the most serious limitations or shortcomings of the captioning service now?

A. As you can imagine, it can be a pain having to lug the equipment to class daily and set up before class, which also requires that the student arrive far ahead of time to allow ample time for setting up. If a person has a class before the class requiring captioning, this can be a real problem. It can also pose a problem for those who are not morning people and have a hard time getting up way in advance! The equipment itself can create problems, as something may go wrong and valuable class time is spent trying to figure out what the heck is wrong. By the time the problem is solved, the student will have missed a good deal of lecture material. So captioning is not always dependable, and students may be without any way of understanding the lecture if the captioning equipment or ph one-line malfunctions. If this happens, I would need to resort to speechreading, a very exhausting thing to do, which would be impossible in cases in which the professor has a strong accent.


Based on experience with the one year "pilot study", the following areas for future exploration or implementation have been identified in order to improve or expand captioning service:


The authors wish to thank those at The University of Iowa responsible for initiating the remote realtime captioning pilot project:
  1. Donna Chandler, Director, Student Disability Services
  2. Bill Cleveland, Director of Telecommunications, Information Technology Service s
  3. Jackie Lewis, Student Disability Services
  4. David Sealey, Information Technology Services
  5. Larry Thoen, AV Equipment Specialist, Division of Continuing Education

We also wish to thank the students who used the remote realtime captioning system. In the spirit of true pioneers, they kept a positive attitude and moved forward in spite of a variety of initial difficulties with the system.

Bishop, J. B. & Collier, C. M. (1997). Remote realtime captioning for classroom participation by deaf and hard of hearing students. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(3).