How to help hard of hearing students as courses evolve online

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Schools, colleges and universities around the world have been closed due to COVID-19. But students are expected to continue their education. As higher education institutions scramble to take their education online, teachers need help making the material accessible to all students.

Some students may have hearing loss and use technologies such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. Even under the best of circumstances, their accessibility needs are often not met. In this COVID-19 pandemic, with little time to prepare, the emphasis is naturally on welcoming the majority of students, but this leaves many students even more marginalized.

In the online environment, the challenges of hearing impaired people can be even greater. They might not be able to hear what the speaker is saying (sound is distorted by technology). Other challenges include the lack of closed captions or captions, the inability to quickly verify with a peer what has been said, and not having manual or electronic notes immediately available to them.

Precise statistics on the number of university students who have hearing loss are not available. But what we do know is that these students often remain underfunded, which can lead to poor academic performance.

Moving mainstream teaching and learning online typically means the use of video or audio (live or recorded), presentations, online discussion forums and virtual group projects, and assessments. These present significant challenges for students with hearing impairments.



Read more: Hearing-impaired students get roughed up: A South African case study


How to meet the needs of all students

Based on the work I have done in this area in South Africa, some ways that teachers can improve online learning for students with hearing loss have been identified. The University of Texas-based National Deaf Center also provides some tips to make sure everyone has access to the same course content, especially when it’s taught online.

  • Perform a condition check As a lecturer, you may not be aware that you have a hearing impaired student in your class. Many do not disclose or ask for any special assistance. Let all your students know that switching to virtual classrooms is an opportunity to let you know if they are having difficulty accessing content through video or audio recordings.

  • Use subtitles Closed captioning is the process of converting audio content from a TV show, webcast, movie, video, CD, live event, or other output to text and display the text on a screen or monitor. Subtitles not only display the words used in spoken dialogue or narration, they also include speaker ID, sound effects, and music description. This is the most effective strategy to ensure access for hearing-impaired students.

Closed captioning is not only essential for deaf / hard of hearing students; it also contributes to the development of the reading and literacy skills of many others. Research shows that using video and audio captions benefits everyone.

An alternative to subtitling is to provide subtitles: a textual alternative for the dialogue of video sequences. There are tools online to help you, like Kapwing. YouTube also allows you to add subtitles automatically.

Test your videoconferencing platform Zoom, Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, and similar platforms are often used by universities, but their accessibility features vary widely and not all have features to help hearing-impaired users. Some platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts, use automatic captions, but the accuracy is not 100%.

Filming for visibility Consider your clothing and lighting when making a video. Video conferencing etiquette recommends that when being filmed, you wear clothes that are not “busy” and provide good contrast to your skin, so that the hearing-impaired student is not distracted and can easily see your lips.
Make sure there is enough light in the room and that it is diffused enough to reduce or eliminate shadows on faces, making it easier for students to read lips. It’s also important to keep the camera at an angle that gives lip readers a good view of your face.

  • Set some ground rules Establishing a few online class rules on communication will bring major benefits when using group communication platforms. Establish protocols for taking turns and participating, such as using the “raise your hand” function, chat box, or tagging your name before commenting. Have students turn on their video only when they want to ask a question, as limiting the number of participants on the screen at one time can improve the quality of the video. The same goes for sound: tell students to stay mute until they have something to say, to reduce background noise. These strategies allow hearing-impaired students to focus on one speaker or interaction at a time.

  • Learn more about your learning management system Use the online tutorials provided by your service provider to learn more about their accessibility features. Make sure that course materials (and glossaries) are provided in advance to hearing-impaired students. Glossaries are extremely useful in explaining the terminology used in the online course.

  • As a presenter, slow down It helps all listeners to follow. Inform students who depend on assistive listening devices that they may need to connect their computer audio directly to a personal device such as a hearing aid or cochlear implant processor, or to noise-canceling headphones.

When possible, record live meetings and lectures in case there are problems with internet connections. Contact your students regularly to see if they can access and understand online content.

Work with the university’s disability rights office to meet the accessibility needs of students. Use one-on-one video chats or text messages if the student needs additional assistance.

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