Learner Experience Lectures / seminars Policy & strategy

Opt-in? Opt-out? Is this the question?


Technology often overtakes ethics. Lecture capture is one such example, with powerful (and sometimes controversial) implications for accessibility. Sue Watling, Academic Advisor for Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Hull, muses on the issues in this guest post.

Opt-in? Opt-out?  When it comes to institutional policies on the recording of teaching, the answer may be more complicated than it seems. Either way will bring problems.

Opt-in might seem the most practical choice. Some people will never be multimedia stars. I speak too quietly for audio and wave my arms too much for video. Some sessions are not the stuff of effective learning so having a choice over the what, where, when and why of recording can seem the way to go. But apply an accessibility lens, and opt-in may lead to differential practices which discriminate on the grounds of availability.

So is opt-out the answer? With carefully managed exceptions? Well, no. This might result in hours of lecture recordings which are no use to anyone not to mention additional burdens on staff time. While recording can be scheduled and automated there is still the question of editing outputs within realistic timescales, something which in turn requires a level of digital capabilities not everyone has. Then there’s the contentious question of text alternatives. Dare I say the three words? Oh go on then! Transcripts. Captions. Subtitles.

I can hear responses already…

I don’t have time.

It’s not my responsibility.

No one else bothers so why should I?

Accessibility solution or problem?

On the surface an opt-out approach, aside from issues of resistance and appropriateness, might seem the way to ensure all students have an audio or video record of their face-to-face sessions for reviewing and revising. However, these videos might also pose barriers which are not only frustrating but verging on illegal.

From their guide to the legal considerations of recording lectures Jisc say the following

‘As a provider of educational services, the Disability Equality Duty and the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 will apply….Reasonable adjustments often include the provision of alternative formats e.g. a transcript of the lecture and/or provision of subtitles.’

But even this is more complicated than it might seem.

‘If [a more inclusive approach] can be achieved without a transcript and/or subtitles then they need not be provided, although many institutions do so as a matter of course. On the other hand, where the learning experience does not allow equality, and a reasonable alternative is not made available, the institution is unlikely to meet their legal duty.’

The elephant in the room…

So opt-in or opt-out? With regard to digital inclusion it actually makes little difference. Either way the question of alternative formats or an equivalent learning experience has to be addressed and these constitute the proverbial elephant in the room. We try to ignore it, hoping it will leave quietly back the back door, but it refuses to go.

The worse solution is waiting for text to be requested, and thinking you’ll deal with it then. The law is anticipatory in nature and a proactive approach is required. A student shouldn’t have to pluck up courage to ask. Prior to changes to the DSA, students assessed as benefiting from audio or video were provided with devices to make their own recordings. Since the changes to the DSA this can no longer be relied upon as a solution.

The advantages of audio and video are not restricted to students with disabilities. Many people benefit from textual equivalents, myself included. I find it hard to organise and retain information I hear but, combine it with a transcript which gives me an overview I can also annotate, and it’s a more rewarding experience. I also have problems with vision meaning captions and subtitles don’t work for me but a downloadable transcript I can customise to suit my own requirements ticks all the boxes for me to learn effectively. I’m not alone in this preference but sometimes I think I’m in the minority.

Practical implications

I worry digital inclusion is talked about more than acted on. I believe digital capabilities should include accessibility as a core element. Without accessible design and practice, those who require alternatives are being excluded from the wealth of content the internet can provide to support learning and teaching, not to mention making the most of their student experience. We know audio and video have the potential to provide an enhanced learning experience for everyone but they can also create as many barriers and benefits. An opt-out approach might seem a reasonable adjustment but remains one full of potential issues. Whether you choose Opt-in or Opt-out, there are issues which need to be raised, relevant discussions to be had and best solutions found.

It’s as simple as this –  consult with the people affected, make a decision, implement the policy and evaluate the outcomes. The elephant is not going to leave the room so start making friends with it before it causes damage.