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How to help students with a hearing impairment as courses move online

It’s important to think about what online teaching and learning means for students with hearing difficulties. GettyImages

Schools, colleges and universities across the world have been closed as a result of COVID-19. But students are expected to continue their studies. As higher education institutions scramble to take their teaching online, lecturers require some help to make material accessible to all students.

Some students may have a hearing impairment and make use of technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. Even under the best circumstances, their accessibility needs are frequently unmet. In this COVID-19 pandemic, with little time to prepare, the focus is understandably on accommodating the majority of students, but this leaves many students further marginalised.

In the online environment, the challenges of the hearing impaired can be even greater. They might not be able to hear what the lecturer is saying (audio is distorted through technology). Other challenges include absence of closed captions or subtitles, not being able to quickly check with a peer what was said, and not having manual or electronic notes immediately available to them.

Precise statistics about the numbers of university students who have hearing loss aren’t available. But what we do know is that these students often remain under supported, which can result in poor academic outcomes.

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

Read more: Students with hearing loss get a raw deal: a South African case study

How the needs of all students can be met

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

  • Do a status check As a lecturer you may not be aware that you have a student with a hearing impairment in your class. Many do not disclose or request any special assistance. Inform all your students that moving to virtual classes is an opportunity to update you if they have any challenges in accessing the content through video or audio recordings.

  • Use captions Captioning is the process of converting the audio content of a television broadcast, webcast, film, video, CD, live event, or other production into text and displaying the text on a screen or monitor. Captions not only display words that are used in spoken dialogue or narration, they also include speaker identification, sound effects and music description. It is the most effective strategy to ensure access for students with a hearing loss.

Captioning is not only critical for students who are deaf/hearing impaired; it also aids the reading and literacy skills development of many others. Research shows that the use of video and audio captions benefits everyone.

An alternative to captioning is to provide subtitles: a text alternative for the dialogue of video footage. There are online tools to assist with this such as Kapwing. YouTube also allows one to add subtitles automatically.

Test your video conferencing platform Zoom, Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting and similar platforms are often used by universities but their accessibility features vary widely and not all of them have features to assist 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 producing a video. Video conferencing etiquette recommends that when you’re being filmed you wear clothing that is not “busy” and provides good contrast with your skin, so that the student with a hearing loss is not distracted and can easily see your lips.
Make sure there’s enough light in the room and that it’s sufficiently diffused to reduce or eliminate shadows on faces, making it easier for students to lip-read. 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 Setting a few online class rules about communication will reap major benefits when using group communication platforms. Establish turn-taking and participation protocols, such as using the “raise hand” feature, the chatbox, or identifying your name before commenting. Ask students to turn on their video only when they want to ask a question, since limiting the number of participants on screen at the same time can improve video quality. The same goes for sound: tell students to stay in mute mode until they have something to say, to reduce background noise. These strategies allow students with hearing difficulties 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 its accessibility features. Ensure that course material (and glossaries) are provided in advance to students with a hearing impairment. Glossaries are extremely useful to explain terminology used in the online class.

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

Where possible, record live meetings and lectures in case there are issues with internet connections. Regularly contact your students to check whether they can access and understand the 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 support.

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