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How to provide inclusive online learning for deaf children

Published Date: 01 Jun 2020
Photo: Inclusive online learning
Kellie Mote

Subject specialist: strategy (accessibility) at Jisc, joins us to share best practice in online accessibility. Jisc is a UK wide organisation supporting colleges and universities with digital solutions. Kellie’s role is to support educators with accessibility and inclusive practice.

With the UK in the midst of a health pandemic almost every part of daily life has been disrupted. The way we shop, communicate and exercise are all different from what we are used to, but we have all found ways to adjust and adapt to fit with the government's guidelines to stay safe.

One sector that has been significantly disrupted is the education sector - with there being a sudden and massive shift towards online learning. Teaching staff who previously had little confidence in this area or low digital skills find themselves as new found digital educators supporting children and students of all ages remotely.

The good news is that there are plenty of tutorials freely available guidance to help upskill those who are new to all of this. However the real key to learner success is not how creative a teacher can be using digital tools or how quickly they can create something, but how inclusive and accessible their approaches, materials and communications are.

Deaf learners in the UK are in a tricky position. Despite the sudden loss of any professional support that they receive, there is no reason for them to fall behind while learning remotely but yet many inevitably will. Whilst it can be challenging to replicate the face-to-face support that many deaf people receive in education it is by no means impossible. All it takes is full consideration, a little thinking and careful planning.

Anticipate diversity

As teachers, you’ll know that each young person has a unique blend of strengths and areas where they need some assistance. When approaching online learning, keep in mind that deaf learners are a diverse group, each with their own communication methods and trusted means of support.

Take the time to explore strategies that give everyone an equal chance to learn. Shelley Moore, an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), uses a bowling analogy. By aiming for the outside pins (those with the highest support needs) you can’t help but take everyone else with you. Take five minutes to watch Shelley’s video for a quick introduction to UDL (and bowling).

One of the most powerful things you can do as an inclusive educator is to get to know what works for your learners. This is especially important when working with deaf young people, as they may not realise they have missed something. A regular quick check in can make a real difference.

Avoid assumptions

Deafness comes in many different levels to children of all ages and is supported in many different ways. A top tip is to avoid a generalised package of ‘deaf support’ and instead use a learner-centred approach that makes the most of the young person’s strengths. Many deaf learners use a mix of hearing, technology, BSL, lip reading, and text support meaning that there is not a set package of things that make online learning accessible to deaf people.

Adding captions and BSL overlays to videos is great practice and should always be encouraged, but these shouldn't be thought of as the only way of making online learning accessible to deaf learners. Having a transcript of a group learning session is also a useful resource and essential for deafblind learners, but shouldn’t be used at the expense of real-time participation.

Do your learners have adequate devices and broadband, an appropriate place to study? Are parents working and restricted in how much time they can spend assisting children. Could you boil down the essentials into an easily accessible format such as a Word document, or a short video clip with easy to create subtitles using an app like Clipomatic that can be viewed on a smartphone?

When working with video resources, assistive listening technology can be used to improve the quality of sound received by a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Do young people or parents know how to set this up? How will they access assistive technology support when at home?

Text overload

Expecting deaf learners to quickly process a lot more text to process than their peers could disadvantage them. It can be exhausting, especially when dealing with subtitles layered over PowerPoint Slides. Providing simple slides with one topic at a time and a clear lesson outline in plain English with glossaries will support learners to engage. This approach isn’t just good for deaf learners, it will be extremely valuable to learners with additional needs.

There is often an assumption with text based support that deaf learners want a verbatim version of what has been said. Again this gives the deaf young person a lot of reading to deal with. Previously when working with deaf students preparing for college and university, Kellie found that while some students did want verbatim notes, more often than not, when given the choice, deaf learners would much rather have summary notes, copies of slides in advance and lecture outlines.

Research on achievement for deaf learners tells us that learners with mild hearing loss are often overlooked as teachers assume they have less need for support. Young people who use hearing aids or cochlear implants require high quality English literacy instruction as their opportunities for exposure to spoken language, vocabulary expansion and incidental learning are limited.

Inclusive teaching benefits everyone

It’s not just learning content that can be made accessible, but practices too. Kellie picked out a few examples of remote communication methods and approaches and offered some useful tips.

When communicating with learners via video call:

  • Always have the speaker’s face visible. Have light on your face rather than behind your head and speak at a steady pace, taking pauses between important points.
  • Introduce yourself if you speaking for the first time in a video call or introduce the person who is speaking next
    Ensure good quality audio by using a headset with a microphone
  • Find out if the learner has assistive tech at home that can enhance the quality of sound received by hearing aids or cochlear implants. Ask if they (or their parents/carers) are confident using it with a computer. If not, how will they access technical support?
  • If you are using auto-subtitling check if it is accurate enough for the learner who relies on it. If not, consider using a palantypist, remote captioner or notetaker - most learning platforms allow for a space into which the notes can appear.
  • If an interpreter is required, make sure the learner knows how to ‘pin’ them for quick and easy access. Zoom is emerging as being popular with BSL users, as they can use gallery view to see everyone at once. Be mindful of security and password protect your Zoom meetings.
  • Circulate corrected transcripts to all learners shortly after the video call has ended. Otter.ai is a free app that generates editable transcription with punctuation.

If you are sharing information through an online presentation:

  • Remember that processing written language may take some learners longer than others. Find a good pace and leave enough time for people to listen, read, watch and understand.
  • Keep presentation slides as simple as possible, don’t crowd with text and use good accessibility practices for all your content.
  • Prioritise readings into manageable lists - must read, read if you have time etc
  • Send any supporting or pre-requisite information out in advance of your presentation

And finally, support understanding.

Online learning places new demands on all learners. In the rapid pivot to online, there hasn’t been an opportunity to prepare young people for this. Younger learners will need added support with language and executive function, which is a set of cognitive skills that continue to develop through adolescence.

These skills include goal setting, focusing and prioritising, applying problem solving strategies. This guide to supporting executive function in online learning environments contains helpful ideas on how to engage with learners and organise information in a way that supports executive function.

  • Check-in regularly with parents and the learner and don’t assume understanding as the learner may not know what they missed.
  • Make time for regular feedback and catch ups.
  • Include glossaries for new vocabulary. As with many of the inclusive approaches mentioned here, this will benefit many learners in your class. Check out the SSC BSL Glossary project.