In the U.S., there are 50.8 million students and 132,853 public and private schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. According to Education Weekly, as of March 14, at least 57,000 schools have been closed, which affects at least 25.8 million students. Deaf educators are discussing how to respond to the pandemic in a way that supports students with hearing loss in a virtual learning environment.
This article about online learning for deaf students is meant to provide tips and suggestions to ensure your child or student’s education continues seamlessly during this time.
There are many ways that educators can make their virtual classrooms more deaf-friendly and accessible.
“This is a critical matter of equity and access for over 200,000 deaf students enrolled in U.S. colleges,” Stephanie W. Cawthon, director of the National Deaf Center of Postsecondary Outcomes, tells the National Deaf Center.
The National Deaf Center gives tips for online learning for deaf students, such as:
Utilizing hearing aid accessories can also benefit students even when attending class virtually.
The Phonak Roger Touchscreen Mic can be plugged into the student’s computer or tablet with a 3.5mm cable and then paired with the hearing aid. On the other end, the teacher and any class participants can use a high-quality headset to provide the audio input. This will help the student hear the teacher clearly.
For group discussions, anyone student or co-presenter not actively speaking should remain on mute to minimize the background noise.
Another option is to replace the Roger Touchscreen mic with the Roger Multimedia Hub. The Multimedia Hub connects with a 3.5 mm cable also and paired directly to the hearing aid. This is a very similar user experience and sound quality as the Touchscreen Mic set up.
However, there are two differences.
First, the Touchscreen Mic has other functions besides multimedia transmission. (It is an adaptive, digital remote mic and has a Small Group mode).
Second, the Touchscreen Mic is more expensive. If your district is nervous about sending this technology home with students, a lower cost Multimedia Hub is available. You can ask your audiologist about receiving an additional transmitter.
In either setup, the school will need to send the transmitter home with the student(s).
As one who has tried over the ear and in the ear headphones while wearing hearing aids, I can tell you it generates a whistling effect in my hearing aids. I find it preferable to connect my computer to the Roger transmitters.
If you have direct Bluetooth capabilities in the student’s hearing aid, Phonak Sky Marvel has universal connectivity, you can pair the hearing aids directly to a computer or tablet.
While my Audéo Marvel hearing aids have direct connectivity, I still prefer to pair to my computer through the Touchscreen Mic. The first reason is I have found I have better battery life in my hearing aid when I’m using the Roger streaming protocol over the Bluetooth streaming protocol. But you may prefer using Bluetooth if that is already your student’s method of connecting.
Visual communications, such as captions and sign language can enhance online learning for deaf students.
As one who is hard of hearing, I’ve tried a few of the solutions for virtual meetings with colleagues, with and without hearing loss. You’ll find a blend of my own experiences and suggestions from providers below.
If you have a student who is a good reader, then live captions or speech-to-text, automated captions may be a solution you implement.
For one project in which I communicate with various people with different levels of hearing loss, a virtual captioner has been hired to join our discussion. The captioner logs into the WebEx call, and types the conversation in real-time.
1) Camera: Teachers and guest speakers can turn on their camera to allow for the deaf or hard of hearing student to speech read. I try to remember to inform speakers to have the camera at a good angle and keep their faces at a reasonable distance so a hard-of-hearing individual can see their mouth. Non-speakers may want to keep their video feed off, to preserve bandwidth.
2) Chat Box: Discussion questions can be entered into the chatbox, to allow the deaf student the ability to read the questions and answers in addition to hearing them.
3) In-viewer, live captions: WebEx has a secondary panel (“Streambox”) in which the live captioner’s text will appear. This makes it easy to see any presentations being shared, the speaker’s face and the captions all at once.
4) Tips to help the captioner: As a facilitator of meetings, I provide the captioner the name and phonetical pronunciation of any official speakers before the session. I also provide an outline with jargon/keywords before the session. For example, when Phonak trained approximately 1,000 educational and pediatric audiologists last fall on the new pediatric solutions, I provided product names, pronunciations, and event the audiological terms. I found that the quality and speed of the remote captioner’s output improved with this added support.
5) Tips to teachers and speakers: I also try to remind my presenters to slow down. First, because it helps all listeners if the speaker isn’t racing through. And second, it helps the captioner keep up with what’s being said.
Some platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts, uses automatic captions. Often these services are in “beta” mode and aren’t completely accurate. Still, the assisted text can be useful for students who are have a difficult time hearing.
1) Video: Of the video conferencing solutions I’ve tried (WebEx, Skype, Teams) I prefer the video feed on Microsoft Teams. There’s a fun feature that allows the user to blur the background. In my opinion, this just helps keep the focus on the speaker. I have one colleague in Canada where we require each other to turn on cameras. We both benefit from speech reading and other visual cues. Turning on the camera and blurring the background is as simple as clicking a few toggle buttons.
2) Captions: Teams now has a beta version of automated captions. The perk here is that its easy. I can click a couple of buttons and turn the captions on. The downside is the linguistics are still rough around the edges. Often punctuation is wrong. There is no systematic way to differentiate between one speaker and another. If the presenter has an accent, you can throw most of the captions right out the window. Personally, I have moderate hearing loss, work in a favorable environment and am an adult. I do not currently need a live captioner for my virtual meetings. However, students with hearing loss may have different communication preferences and require different accommodations than I do. So, this method of captioning may be too unreliable for them.
3) Tips to speakers: For anyone who has been on a conference call with multiple speakers, we know it can be difficult to tell one person’s voice from another. If the curriculum calls for multiple presenters or class participation, ask that each speaker announce their name before they begin speaking. For example, “This is Whitney. I have a question.” Or “This is Mrs. Spagnola.” And for non-speakers, again, stay muted to minimize the background noise.
These automated captioning solutions that are created with school environments in mind. I personally haven’t used them, but know that the leaders at the companies are working with Educational Audiologists and Itinerants across the U.S. to improve student access.
This automated captioning subscription app has had recent developments, according to the provider’s marketing material, that now results in 98 percent word accuracy. It also offers “other useful classroom features.”
These other features include translations to other languages, transcripts in multiple languages, the ability to add real-time notes on the caption transcript, and the experience is secure, meaning that educators decide who the content is shared with. This solution has a marginal monthly fee.
Microsoft Translator is another automated captioning program that also offers translations and transcripts in numerous languages, which can support online learning for deaf students. These solutions are often free.
Tina Childress, a deaf audiologist, shares 13 videoconferencing solutions for virtual education for deaf students, including CART support and Automatic Captioning. She also recommends 15 speech-to-text solutions including information about platforms, situational usage, input methods, translation possibilities, recordings, transcripts, how the text is generated, and more.
Read more: My experience with CART at university
Virtual education for deaf students works better when a teacher fit with hearing technology. For example, a teacher can wear a Roger transmitter paired to a MyLink (02), which is then plugged into the computer. This simply provides a better signal of the teacher’s voice, preserving the SNR, in the transmission. See set up options here.
If you use CART, C-Print, TypeWell or other services where a captioner will need to log in, do work with the school’s IT department to be sure the captioner has access to your school’s learning management system or other online resources.
You may choose to get a remote American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for your students. Preferably, the interpreter would be in the class meeting, so that an individual’s video feed would be front and center. Be sure to instruct the student to pin the interpreter’s video so it is always visible.
However, if transmitting the ASL video through the school’s LMS is not possible, you may choose to have the interpreter have an open/live feed via Facetime or another platform with the student. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of colleagues doing this.
Pro Tip: place the secondary screen so the student can see the ASL input and the other content simultaneously. This may take some testing on the part of the student, but it could be done.
As soon as I thought my daughter’s school would close, I texted our wonderful hearing itinerant, “do you have a few minutes to talk about virtual education today?” In our conversation, we gave each other the flexibility to acknowledge that we’re learning as we go. We agreed that a quick conference call with my daughter’s teaching team during their institute day.
I love the second point of NDS’s tips: “Remain Flexible, because it Won’t be ‘One Size Fits All.’”
We are all going to learn as we go! Share the tips you learn with peers, parents, and students so we can all succeed.
For more information on online learning for deaf students, check out these resources:
#DeafEdTips. Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education.
COVID-19 and Students with Disabilities