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Safe listening and making the most of e-learning

e-learning and safe listening
As many schools continue some version of e-learning during COVID-19, what can parents and teachers do to ensure optimal, safe listening?

Whether or not the child has a hearing loss, this is the time to be proactive. In this article, we provide some common listening challenges for e-learning, and how to overcome them.

Difficulty Focusing

In general, school is fraught with distractions. Paying attention to teachers and classmates on a computer can be even more challenging. If your child is having difficulty focusing, will earbuds help?

Using earbuds and headphones

e-learning and safe listening

“Earbuds certainly could be a big boost to maintaining attention for online classes,” says Weston Enterline, M.A., Graduate Student Clinician in Audiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders.

This is for a simple reason; they’ll make the sound of the teacher’s voice more noticeable than any background noise that may be occurring. While classrooms are often treated to limit background noise, any individual home may not be. Earbuds can help limit this a bit and give the child direct access to the teacher.

“…they’ll make the sound of the teacher’s voice more noticeable than any background noise that may be occurring.”

“This same principle has been shown in the use of FM or Remote Microphone systems for normal hearing children in classrooms,” Enterline says. “Even when the children had normal hearing, they still had an easier time maintaining attention when using the FM system.”

Read more: FM Gets Good Grades

But each child’s auditory needs are unique when it comes to accessing curriculum content during virtual learning, cautions Deborrah Johnston, Au.D., Director of Outreach and Audiology Manager at DePaul School for Hearing and Speech. Some may do fine listening through the device, while others may benefit from direct streaming via lightweight earphones, wired or wireless Bluetooth earbuds, or even gaming-style (circumaural) headphones.

“Most students, whether with typical hearing or hearing loss, will benefit from direct input to allow for an ‘ease of listening’ and improved focus,” Johnston says.

Johnston points out that the drawback of direct audio streaming is that the parent or caregiver can’t hear the teacher simultaneously. This can especially be a concern with younger children. In this case, an audio splitter might be useful.

E-learning solutions for deaf and hard of hearing students

For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, manufacturers like Phonak address the issue of direct audio streaming with a wide variety of products that can be tailored to each child’s unique technological needs.

Read more: Phonak classroom resources

Another recommendation is to use headphones to block sounds out further, according to Tina Childress, an educational audiologist, technology aficionado, late-deafened-adult, and bilateral cochlear implant recipient. This means not having to turn the volume up so much to tune out the noise.

If the student wears hearing aids, earbuds can’t be worn. There are other options, as listed by Childress: Connecting to school-owned RMHAT, headphones with a cushion, personal streamer accessories, amplified Bluetooth neckloops, and direct audio input cables.

If the student is a cochlear implant wearer, only Advanced Bionics users that use a T-mic can use earbuds because the T-mic sits at the level of the ear canal and enough sound leaks out for it to be picked up, Childress explains. It may need to be turned up, though.

Read more: Back to School during COVID-19 for students with hearing loss

Avoiding hearing damage

How can you make sure the earbuds aren’t causing hearing damage? This is an important consideration, but it’s difficult to access without specialized equipment, says Johnston. If sound is originating from the device speakers, you can use a Sound Level Meter app. (Decibel X is one option) Hold the smartphone by the child’s ear to measure the sound. Ensure that the level doesn’t exceed 85 dB SPL, which can be damaging to the inner ear hair cells with prolonged exposure.

General rules for safe listening for e-learning:

  • The level at which sound becomes potentially damaging over a long period (about 24 hours) of exposure is around 70 dB SPL
  • If it becomes as loud as 85 dB SPL, this drops to around 3-5 hours
  • As long as the volume is kept below 50 percent of the maximum volume, it should remain well below 70 dB SPL
  • Most headphones made for children include features that attempt to limit output below 85 dB SPL
  • It is still important to monitor and check how loud they may be listening

Read more: 5 loud noises that could damage your hearing 

Depending on the device, there might also be an internal setting that sets a cap on how loud it gets, says Childress. It’s often a slider, so if the default is for the slider to be all the way on the right (loudest), move it more toward the middle, she adds. That way, no matter how much the student turns up the volume, it won’t get too loud.

If your child is using an Apple device, there are ways to set parental controls for volume.

For students who use hearing aids, technology called compression and in-built fitting algorithms prevent exposure to potential dangerously loud noise levels, Johnston says. And for students with cochlear implants, there’s less of a concern because the child has pre-existing damage of the hair cells, she adds. In some cases, however, there’s residual hearing that needs to be preserved.

“Families should consult with their child’s audiologist regarding hearing preservation and conservation strategies specific to their child’s audiogram,” recommends Johnston.

Purchasing headphones for your child 

When it comes to which earbuds or headphones to purchase, the choice is subjective and based on several factors. Most importantly, that the headphones ensure safe listening for an e-learning environment.

Here are some tips from the sources already quoted in this article:

  • Listen before you buy if possible
  • Choose a vendor that has a good return for credit policy
  • When listening, make sure the sound is clear – not muffled – and comfortable in terms of loudness
  • Pay particular attention to what your child is able to hear. The softest speech sounds have more high pitched information. For example, “s” as in sock, “th” as in thin, “v” as in vine, “f” as in foot
  • Ensure that the headphones will be comfortable to wear for long periods of time
  • If it has additional background noise limiting features, that may be useful
  • Make sure it has a hard limit to not exceed 85 dB SPL
  • Headphones that have a cushion rather than a flat earpiece might maximize comfort. They may also block out noise more efficiently

Enterline says that one pair of headphones that comes well recommended is the Puro BT2200. While it’s a little more expensive at $80, it meets all the criteria. It is also well liked by children and adults. The Onanoff BuddyPhones Explore is a good, cheaper option for toddlers. For older kids (11+), the JLab JBuddies Studio is another good, cost-effective option, Enterline says.

Another option is the Roger Focus, which works like a headphone for children with hearing loss, auditory processing disorder, and autism spectrum disorder. It has different form factors, like a touchscreen mic, clip-on mic, or even a pen.

Read more: Face masks in school: Tips for navigating a new classroom

What if My Child Can’t Hear Well?

If you’re concerned about your child’s ability to hear during e-learning, ask the school district for a consultation with a specialist. Johnston says that depending on existing COVID protocols, an assessment of technology needs can be done either in person or virtually.

And if you’re ever suspicious about a possible hearing loss, it literally can’t hurt to have your child’s hearing tested. Hearing tests are quick and easy. You can even find free tests online to get started. 

If your child already has a hearing loss, it’s still possible to lose more. That’s why it’s important to be cautious about sounds being too loud.

“It’s a fine line between needing to increase volume so your child can hear, but not being too loud so it doesn’t cause more damage,” says Childress. “The best solution would be to find a way to couple your child’s personal amplification or implanted device to what you need to listen to since there will already be output limits set so it doesn’t get too loud.”

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Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.