Khan Academy goes global with crowdsourced subtitles

The Khan Academy is expanding its reach beyond the English-language world, thanks to community-provided subtitles. Those subtitles will add translations to more than two dozen languages on videos of the popular education site. Khan’s internationalization efforts are aided by Universal Subtitles, a non-profit which tries to make web video more accessible to both deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers as well as international audiences through crowd-sourced captioning.

Each and every video on the Khan Academy’s website now comes with a subtitle menu that allows viewers to pick the language of their choosing. Some of the videos, like the first lesson of Khan’s Arithmetic course, already feature plenty of translations, ranging from Spanish to Chinese to Tamil. Check out the clip below, complete with all of the available subtitles:

Other clips come with fewer languages, and some don’t have any captions at all yet. Community members can transcribe these videos through an easy-to-use online captions editor, and existing transcriptions can be peer-edited to work out any kinks.

Khan Academy’s translation project director Bilal Musharraf told us via email that Universal Subtitles was the ideal partner to pull of this kind of internationalization of the site’s video assets. “It was a good match for what we were looking for because its basic service of enabling an existing volunteer community to gather subtitles was available at no cost,” he said. Eventually, the subtitles will also be used as scripts for translators to voice over the videos, Musharraf explained.

Khan is only one of a growing number of sites that relies on Universal Subtitles for translation and accessibility. The initiative was launched less than a year ago by the non-profit Participatory Culture Foundation, but it already helped site owners and volunteers to transcribe around 100,000 videos. Some of its other users include Mozilla and Al-Jazeera, which recently began to use the platform to crowdsource the translation of citizen media footage from Syria, Tunisia and other Arab spring hot spots.

Crowdsourcing captions not only makes content from Khan and others more accessible both to people with hearing disabilities and speakers of languages other than English, it can also help with SEO efforts. Full-text transcripts of videos can be indexed by search engines, making video assets easier to discover. “It’s a huge part of where online video is headed,” said Participatory Culture Foundation cofounder Nicholas Reville via email.

It’s also something online video makers increasingly are forced to do: Congress passed a law last year that will eventually force broadcasters to provide closed captions for any web video that also aired on TV. Last week, disability advocates sued CNN (s TWX) and Netflix (s NFLX) to force the companies to caption all video on their sites. The plaintiffs in both cases argued that CNN and Netflix discriminate against deaf viewers by not providing captions.

The outcome of the cases is unclear at this point, but a legal precedent in favor of disability rights advocates could potentially force a wide range of online video publishers to provide subtitles for their video catalog. Quite a few publishers might decide to follow the Khan Academy’s example and appeal to their audiences to help with captioning.