Online Learning for Kids with Hearing Loss: Challenges and Solutions
Written By Lisa A. Goldstein
Now that school has gone virtual, kids who are deaf and hard of hearing are adjusting to the new classroom. What challenges are they facing, and what are the solutions?
Challenges for Students
Google classroom is being used for Max’s fourth grade class in Pittsburgh. Max, who has a BAHA 5 and Phonak SkyV 50 hearing aid, is mainly struggling with all the videos being used for science. The teacher didn’t choose videos with captions already provided. Max’s mom, Danielle Cieply, has to find the videos herself and then provide the captions.
As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, during a video call with Microsoft Teams, the audio wasn’t great and there weren’t any captions. His teacher of the deaf (TOD) wasn’t providing sessions via Zoom or any other video apps because the school district was trying to figure out the legalities.
Then Max’s BAHA kept cutting out from his iPad. The original plan was to use the Bluetooth to sync the BAHA. The sound was great, but it cut out quite a bit, so it wasn’t ideal for watching videos.
And there’s the social aspect, which is the biggest struggle and concern for almost 9-year-old Hannah. The Chappaqua, New York resident wears bilateral cochlear implants (CI), but only wears one since home school started. While the technology part is difficult to understand, there’s also little interaction, so school doesn’t hold her interest.
“Hannah has an iPad and has done group chats and FaceTime [with her friends], but the girls move fast and the language isn’t always clear, so her responses aren’t always on par with her friends,” says her mother, Jennifer Weitzman. “She tends to copy [others] instead of be herself, and the group got so big with some kids adding kids from camp. Hannah decided to remove herself and it’s been difficult to connect.”
More Work for Parents
Clearly, parents have to be involved in this process to make sure their children with hearing loss are receiving the education they deserve. Kristina Cole of Pittsburgh calls it another full-time job. Online learning for her 9-year-old son, Morgun, is actually going really well, but he needs a lot of support. The ComPilot has been a lifesaver for him. Even if videos are missing captions, having audio directed into his hearing aids via Bluetooth makes a big difference. If he’s in a Zoom meeting, it’s a one-on-one engagement, and his teachers know to repeat and speak distinctly directly to the camera.
But because it’s a whole new world and learning platform, Cole has to be by her son’s side through all the lessons and classwork. “Many are going through this,” Cole says. “I just worry about our [kids who are deaf and hard of hearing] who don’t have the parents available for that kind of support. It’s definitely consuming.”
Dana Selznick, M.A., M.Ed, deaf education specialist and coordinator of the Family Resource Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York City, has heard from parents, students and teachers about these challenges. They can be lumped into two categories: captions and acoustics.
Video Conferencing Platforms
Depending on the video conferencing platform used, captions may or may not be included. And, of course, following along with captions is age dependent and only beneficial when the child is of an appropriate reading level, Selznick points out.
Google Meet has captions that are easy to access and follow. It even states the name of who’s talking. But the captions are often inaccurate, Selznick says. Zoom requires an outside program for captioning, which can be overwhelming to set up. If the district pays for a third party captioner, that’s ideal. Otherwise, using Otter.ai (Apple), Google Live Transcribe (Android), or webcaptioner.com are solid alternatives. Note: the captions may just look like a flow of words, which can be challenging when there’s a class discussion.
Just like it’s important to make sure a classroom is acoustically friendly, the virtual classroom must have the same environment. “Students have reported that the sound quality is not clear and their video stream often stalls, making the audio and video come through at different times,” says Selznick. Additional distractions and complications include the teacher and other students having background noises in the rooms they’re in, too many children trying to respond at once, students with similar names which don’t come across clearly through the computer audio, and speakers who are sitting too far away.
Selznick offers the following suggestions for these scenarios:
- Ask everyone to keep their computer on mute unless they’re the one talking. Often, the teacher can control this as well.
- Ask the teacher to make sure they’re sitting in a quiet room with the door closed and background noises turned off.
- Make sure teachers have a good microphone connection. If possible, have them use a microphone on a headset or even their cell phone headphones, as this will reduce some of the background noise that’s picked up by the computer microphones.
- Ask the teacher to use the students’ first and last names if there are students with similar names.
One of the most common accommodations during a normal school year is to allow students who are deaf and hard of hearing to preview and review material. “It is just as important, if not more important, during this time,” says Selznick. “Teachers should provide the students with an outline or key points that will be covered during the virtual lesson. After, the teacher can provide the student with information that was brought up or additional information that was expanded on. Ideally, the teacher would schedule a 1:1 video conference with the student once or twice a week as a check in and follow up on lessons.”
Weitzman reached out to Hannah’s TOD, who now works with her 1:1 on assignments. She’s also set up structured FaceTime playdates for Hannah, where she and a friend play a game like Battleship or Bingo. Reaching out to others with whom she’s more comfortable has also helped.
Max’s mom contacted his TOD and classroom teacher, and was connected to the educational audiologist. The school has been helpful, she says. The TOD was able to get Max’s assistive technology from school. They’re going to try to pair everything up and try Otter.ai as well.
During this stressful time, it’s important to communicate with the school about your child’s needs, and know that we’re all figuring this out together.
Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist, frequently contributing to AG Bell publications. She was born profoundly deaf and uses a cochlear implant and digital hearing aid. She has been a member of AG Bell since she was a child.