MOOCs for everyone, but the deaf

If House of Cards can caption its shows for deaf and hard of hearing people, why can't academia?

For the past decade, we've all been enjoying online media one way or another. "Breaking Bad" was dangerous, especially with Netflix's auto-play feature; it would automatically show the next episode, and we just had to watch "one more" episode.

In 2005, YouTube began allowing users to upload video clips online. In 2007, Netflix allowed users to watch streamed television shows and movies on our computers. In 2008, Hulu began streaming television shows. Today, all of us have seen a YouTube clip, watched a movie on Netflix, or enjoyed an episode on Hulu. In fact viewers coined a new term: binge-watching which means to watch a television series in rapid succession, without needing to wait for the next new episode when it airs.

As Hollywood became more and more available online, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sought to ensure that these videos were captioned so deaf and hard of hearing viewers could click to get text for the audio portion. We filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we won. As of September 2014, 100 percent of Netflix's content is captioned. This was a milestone for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community because like you, we enjoy binge-watching "House of Cards" or "The Walking Dead." Following Netflix's example, other video streaming companies are also starting to provide full captioned access.

But today, we face a new issue in the growing realm of streamed media from academia. Major universities like Harvard and MIT provide MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. The universities promote these free videos as available for any viewer to enjoy and learn, and there are thousands of them. They range from traditional courses (some cover an entire semester) such as mathematics, astronomy and art history to how-to instructions in cooking and auto repair. There are also videos with guest lecturers including President Barack Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, artist Lady Gaga and other famous celebrities that have been invited to campus to speak on public affairs. You can also find educational videos made by MIT students for use by K-12 students or even regular podcasts such as the "HBR IdeaCast" by the Harvard Business Review.

Millions of people have visited the websites. As the universities proudly proclaim, you do not have to register as a student — anyone can watch these great videos.

Except for me.

As a deaf person, these videos are not accessible because not all the videos have captions. Of the very few videos that have captions, many have errors and are not of the appropriate quality. Thousands of videos have no captions at all. As head of a national advocacy organization for deaf and hard of hearing people, I'm astounded that these prestigious schools are not providing equal access. If a small non-profit organization like the NAD can caption its videos, then why can't everyone else? There's nothing really fancy about it. Television shows are broadcast with captions that anyone can turn on.

With the popularity of MOOCs increasing every day, online content represents the next frontier for learning and lifelong education. Yet both Harvard and MIT betray their legendary leadership in quality education by denying access to approximately 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

This is not only unfair — it is illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act mandate that universities receiving millions of dollars in federal tax support must provide equal access to their programs and services. This applies whether in a brick-and-mortar classroom or online.

Like you, deaf people would enjoy learning how to cook, understand astronomy or know what the President Obama had to say when he visited Harvard.

That is why NAD filed another lawsuit against Harvard and MIT last month on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing Americans. We hope that all universities and colleges will comply with the law and provide equal access to all.

Howard A. Rosenblum is CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. His email is howard.rosenblum@nad.org.

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