Think about the last time you gathered with family or friends to play a new board game. Everyone is gathered around the table—the pieces are scattered and ready to be put in order. Someone grabs the instruction booklet and begins to read. 


As soon as the instructions have been read, you grab the booklet and read through the rules for yourself. 

Even when we understand the words being spoken, sometimes we need to actually see the words written on the page to fully comprehend what’s being communicated. 

This is a simple example, sure, but it illustrates the experiences of many English Language Learners (ELLs) enrolled in universities. 

The ELL Experience in Higher Education 

In a 2018 report, The American Institutes For Research traced the journey of three ELL students and made recommendations about how universities could better support such students: 

• The first student, Mei, was an international student required to enroll in so many extra English language courses that it set her far behind her fellow classmates. 

• The second student, Saad, was an accomplished anesthesiologist in Syria before immigrating to the United States. He enrolled in an English as a Second Language course at community college, but found that the material was too general to be of much help in the medical world. 

• The third student, Rocio, was bilingual and didn’t consider herself an ELL, but still scored low on the English portions of placement tests. Because of this, she was required to take remedial courses. 

These three students represent an extremely diverse group of English Language Learners. Each ELL student has a unique experience with the English language, has unique support needs, and holds unique personal goals and ambitions. 

In short? There is no one singular “ELL experience in Higher Ed.” The challenge, then, for universities is to figure out how to implement sustainable resources that help support this wide variety of needs. 

ELL Numbers and Success Rates 

Let’s take a brief look at some fast facts about ELL demographics in schools to get a better idea of the whole picture:

• In 2020, ELLs made up approximately 10% of all public school students—with California, Texas, and New Mexico recording the highest enrollment numbers. 

80% of students enrolling in higher education between 2000 and 2021 are of immigrant-origin and make up approximately 30% of today’s higher education student population. 

• Over 1 million international students enrolled in US education programs during 2019-2020. 

Given this, you might think that there would be plenty of data for tracking ELL success in higher education. Unfortunately this is not the case. When tracking demographic information from students, most universities do not ask about language background at all. Additionally, as illustrated by the three students above, this population of students is far from a monolith. There are so many unique experiences among students that it becomes difficult to find standard tracking metrics that will provide reliable results to accurately represent all ELL experiences. 

The ELL demographic is certainly not small or insignificant. And the gifts, talents, and perspectives that these students offer is also invaluable. These students have a unique capacity for understanding the demands of our multicultural nation and world. 

As this 2018 American Institutes for Research report aptly notes: 

As the United States becomes increasingly more diverse, there will be more demand for a workforce that can navigate languages and cultures. ELLs are uniquely positioned to meet this demand and are eager to do so, but colleges and universities will need to prepare them adequately for the tasks ahead and find innovative ways to unlock their potential. 

In a renewed effort to meet the needs of this multifaceted group of students, the Institute makes a couple of recommendations to higher education institutions. One such recommendation? 

Leveraging technology to meet challenges. 

EdTech and Captioning Research in the Classroom 

Education technology, or Edtech, which includes AI-powered tools, offers all students and their educators an opportunity to foster a deep enthusiasm for learning. The right combination of educational tools can motivate students, tailor instruction to different learning styles, and encourage collaboration. 

In a little bit we’ll see how new cutting-edge Edtech is opening doors for students. But first, let’s look at some studies that were done on a slightly less advanced technology: traditional closed captioning on prerecorded videos. 

According to various academic studies, closed captioning for ELL students is wildly effective. By simply adding closed captions to videos, researchers saw improvements in

• Listening and comprehension skills 

• Attention and motivation 

• Vocabulary testing 

• Integrating new knowledge with previously learned material

In addition to these positive improvements in performance, closed captions were also correlated with a reduction in stress and anxiety. With an ever-increasing focus on mental health in universities, this powerful combination of increased performance with decreased anxiety should be extremely exciting. 

In another fascinating study, researchers asked 150 ELL students to watch different types of videos and then see how much information they could recall from those videos. One of those videos was just a typical clip with audio and video and no captions. Another one of those videos included captions with the audio and video. The results were astounding. The students that watched the video with captions had twice as better recall as students who watched a video without captions. 

Something as simple as being able to read what was being said produced nothing less than completely transformative results. 

An Opportunity Knocks 

As an ever-growing demographic in the United States, ELLs are future leaders and change-makers— contributing valuable ideas and new perspectives to society. Despite the increasing number of ELL students, however, graduation rates and the number of ELL students attending 4-year universities is low compared to the general population. Many academic programs and institutions are designed with only fluent English speakers in mind

This presents an excellent opportunity for schools to rise above the crowds. ELL students are driven to succeed and have much to offer universities and society from their diverse life experiences and future goals. Universities that can find a way to offer needed support through Edtech tools can find themselves setting a new standard of excellence and positive student engagement. This is a unique opportunity for universities to prioritize innovative ideas and expand their curriculum and resources to better support today’s diverse students. 

Think back to the students we met from the American Institutes for Research. What if Mei didn’t have to spend so much time in remedial classes but instead had the tools she needed to go back and study the lectures? Or what if Saad could spend more time learning the English version of medical terminology instead of being forced to take unhelpful ESL classes focused on conversation he’s already mastered? 

Sometimes it can seem overwhelming trying to figure out how to meet the needs of each individual student. …But maybe it doesn’t have to be as tricky as it seems. What if these students could just have their normal lectures captioned—or transcribed—like in the study above? 

What if instead of having to invent new tools for each unique student experience, universities could invest in strategic tools that are built to support a wide variety of unique needs? What if all lectures could come with a more cutting-edge form of closed captioning? 

A Tool for Doubling the Score 

The obvious problem here is that closed captions are easy enough for material that is recorded far in advance. Movies, TV shows, even lectures recorded long ago. But what about for materials that aren’t pre-recorded? 

To mimic the results of this study on a large scale, there had to be a transcription solution that could be applied to all lectures—not just ones pre-recorded in advance. This service had to be accurate. (What good are inaccurate captions?) It had to be fast. (ELLs had to be able to keep up with classmates.) And it had to be affordable. (It had to be a realistic investment for universities.) 

Until now, that has been a challenging set of standards to meet. But we didn’t let that stop us. Echo Lab’s CASPER AI is over 99% accurate, produces transcriptions within 24 hours, and is the most cost-effective option around. In effect, it serves like near real-time closed captions for ELL students. 

While we certainly recognize that transcription services aren’t a cure-all for overcoming all challenges ELLs face in higher education, we also believe that it can (and will!) serve as a transformative support system. Where determined students are able to listen to lectures with their peers and then go back and study the accurately transcribed version of the lecture for additional clarification and learning. 

We’re on a mission to double the score. To help higher education institutions implement sustainable and cost-affection transcription solutions that will enable ELL students all over the country to truly learn, perform, and work at their very best. 

Sometimes we all need to go back and read the instructions—even after they were read out loud. If this is true of us in the context of a trivial board game, how much more would this be true for an ELL student in the context of a higher education environment? 

Echo Labs is proud to provide the technology, accuracy, turnaround times, and price point needed to make this a reality for every student in every classroom across the country. 

Click here to schedule your demo today and join our mission!