Chapter 3. During the Pandemic: Teaching Sign Languages Online
Summary of Chapter 3
When countries went into lockdown because of the Covid-10 pandemic, schools were closed and teachers had to start teaching online.
To find out what this meant for sign language teachers, we interviewed teachers and students. You can find the interviews on the project’s website: www.signteach.eu/online.
We also posted a survey online with questions for sign language teachers across Europe. We posted the survey in October 2022. By the end of the project, the survey had been answered by 69 sign language teachers, from 18 different countries.
On the website, you can find the answers to the questions. Most teachers indicated that there were many challenges. Some challenges were the same as for all teachers who had to teach online: technical problems, learning how to use Zoom or similar platforms, and the motivation of students.
Many challenges that the teachers mentioned are specific for teaching signed languages:
- Eye strain and eye fatigue.
- Teaching a 3D language, using a 2D medium
- Visibility: too many students in a class made the video windows very small. As a result it becomes difficult to see what someone is signing.
Some teachers indicated that it was very difficult for them to teach sign language online. Some said it was impossible. Most teachers, however, said that it is possible, but not optimal . During the lockdown, they had no choice: they had to teach online. As soon as they were allowed to meet with students again, they switched back to teaching offline, in class.
We asked what support they would need to make online teaching easier:
- Technical support: a technician who can solve all technical problems.
- Training. Both training in how to use Zoom, and also training in how you can adapt the curriculum and learning activities to make them appropriate for online teaching.
- Software and apps to make online learning activities.
- Contact and collaboration with other sign language teachers.
3. During the Pandemic: Teaching Sign Languages Online
Desk research of the literature about teaching sign language online during the pandemic resulted in very few publications.
A small scale study with deaf and hard-of-hearing university students showed that online learning is more tiring for Deaf sign language users, compared to hearing students (E‑learning is a burden for the deaf and hard of hearing Filipa M. Rodrigue, Ana MariaAbreu, Ingela Holmström & Ana Mineiro).
We decided to supplement the little information that was available online by interviewing sign language teachers and learners, and by posting an online survey for sign language teachers across Europe.
Partners in the SignTeach Online project answered questions about teaching online: what were the challenges of teaching a signed language online, how did they deal with these challenges, what advice would they give to other sign language teachers? Later, national and international colleagues were interviewed as well. In addition, a small number of students in their classes were interviewed online.
In total, 25 sign language teachers and 6 students were interviewed. You can find the interviews on the project’s website: https://www.signteach.eu/online/index.php/interviews
3.2 Online Survey
To find out more, from more sign language teachers in more countries, an online survey was produced in the second year of the project: https://www.signteach.eu/online/index.php/resources-st-online/st-o-survey
The survey was posted on the website in October 2022 . By that time, most Covid pandemic restrictions had been lifted and offline teaching had replaced online classes. For many sign language teachers, the questions in the survey were no longer relevant; this may have been one of the causes of the limited response.
Another possible reason may have been the fact that the survey was in written English. Many Deaf sign language users (including teachers) prefer sign language to written language. Reading and writing English is a major challenge for many of them. Nevertheless, the SignTeach survey showed that respondents at that time indicated that International Sign was not easily accessible for all of them, either. Understanding written English and International Sign had comparable results at that time.
In the introduction to the survey (English text and International Sign) we informed respondents that they could answer the open questions in their own national written language. Some did; we used Google Translate to translate their answers.
The call for the survey was disseminated through our social media (Facebook and Instagram), by contacting networks and by direct mail.
3.3 Results of the Survey
By the end of June 2023, a total of 69 sign language teachers had completed the survey, from 18 countries. The number of respondents per country was too small to allow us to compare countries. The responses do however give a fair idea of the challenges that sign language teachers had to deal with when teaching online.
Turkey, Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey
The sign language teachers who completed the survey were very experienced:
- 61% had been a sign language teacher for more than 6 years. Only 5 respondents had been teaching for less than 1 year.
- 61% of the respondents had experience with the synchronous teaching of sign language online. 33% with asynchronous online teaching, 50% with hybrid teaching (a combination of online and offline teaching). Respondents were allowed to select more than 1 option, so there is overlap between the answers.
Several respondents added that they had only taught sign language online because of, and during the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to a later question, some indicated that they hoped they would never have to teach online again. Others, however, were more positive about teaching online, see below.
Most of the students of the respondents were between 21-45 years (98%). Only a few taught students younger than 15 (17%), or older than 66 years of age (6%).
Most students (83%) were beginners (CEFR Level A1-A2), 71% were at the intermediate level (CEFR B1-B2), and only 30% were students at the advanced level (CEFR C1-C2). Again, respondents could choose more than one option, some taught at several CEFR-levels.
3.3.2 Platforms, tools, practices
Most of the sign language teachers used Zoom for their online classes (94%), 26% used Microsoft Teams, 15% used Google Classroom. Especially teachers teaching at universities were unable to choose themselves; they had to follow the university’s practices.
We did not ask about the respondents to rate the relative usability and attractiveness of the various platforms.
To support the online classes, 69% of the teachers used online training materials. Of these, 82% made their own materials or did this together with colleagues. 31% used existing online materials. Of course, whether it is possible to use existing online materials depends on what is available for the sign language that is taught.
Teachers who developed their own training materials, mostly used generic online tools:
- YouTube, Vimea
- Video editing tools: quicktime, iMovie
- Google Slides
- Google Docs
- Acrobat Editor
The only online e-learning tool that was mentioned by several respondents was Kahoot! (9 respondents; see: https://kahoot.com).
For an overview of all the tools that were mentioned, see the project’s website: https://www.signteach.eu/online/index.php/st-online/resources-st-online.
3.3.3 Teaching students in foreign countries
We asked the sign language teachers if they were also teaching their sign language to students in other countries, and if not: if they would be interested in doing this.
The majority of the respondents only taught sign language to students in their own country (77%). 8% of the teachers did teach sign language students in other countries, 14% would be interested in doing this.
We asked the sign language teachers if they had had training in offline versus online sign language teaching. And if they had had any training in teaching online, what training they had received.
Training in teaching sign language offline
Training in teaching sign language online
We did not ask what the training in offline teaching consisted of that the teachers had received. The percentage is similar to what we saw in the first SignTeach survey in 2017: 81%.
It seems that overall, no more training options have become available for sign language teachers in recent years.
We did ask what kind of training the respondents had received for teaching online. In most cases, the training focused on technical aspects of teaching online: how to use Zoom or other platforms. The training was often delivered by IT specialists, so would not have focused on the didactic aspects of teaching signed languages online.
Two respondents indicated that they had learned how to deal with larger groups of students and with the duration of online classes. Larger groups: split them up into smaller groups; long classes: split them up into shorter activities. For instance: 15 minutes of direct interaction with the teacher, then 15 minutes of independent online study, then again some time interacting directly with the teacher.
3.3.5 Opinions, preferences, advice
In the third and final part of the survey, we asked the respondents about their opinions and preferences. The main question of the survey was question 11:
The results were quite balanced:
One respondent said that teaching a sign language online does not work, and 1 chose 5: it is very effective, online teaching is as effective as offline teaching. The majority (62%) chose 3. the middle option in between the two extremes.
3.3.6 Class duration, class size
We asked the respondents about their subjective preferences for class duration and class size. Within the limitations of the SignTeach Online project (time, budget), we were not able to collect data on the relative effectiveness of different class sizes and/or class durations. All results in this section therefore are subjective preferences that will need to be researched before they can be converted into recommendations.
Most teachers (44%) preferred a duration of 46-60 minutes, including one or more breaks. 6% chose a longer duration of: 90 minutes. 25% preferred shorter classes: 31-45 minutes. And 10% preferred even shorter classes: 15-30 minutes.
One teacher responded that she had to follow the rules of the university: 90 minutes per lesson, even though she considered this too long for sign language classes. Another teacher responded that class duration depended on the age of the students: shorter classes for children, longer classes for adult learners.
Many sign language teachers mention ‘eye strain’: sign language users have to closely watch the screen to see the other signers. Watching sign language in 2D (instead of in 3D) adds to this strain. Because of this, the best duration of sign language classes may indeed be shorter than what is recommended or common practice for teaching spoken languages online.
As for class size, the preferred number of students per class was 5-8 students (46%). If more students attend a class, the video windows become very small and as a result: the signers become difficult to see.
23% of the respondents preferred even smaller classes: 1-4 students.
Again, one respondent mentions the requirements made by the university: 16 students per class, even though this results in too many sign windows on the screen which very much impairs the visibility of the signers.
Visibility: 9 students versus 2 students in a class.
We asked the respondents what the main challenges were of teaching signed languages online. The challenges that were included in the questions were those that were mentioned by research into mainstream online teaching. Respondents were also asked to add challenges of their own.
Each challenge could be rated on a 3 point scale:
0 = Not a challenge
1 = Yes a challenge
2 = This is a BIG challenge.
The top 3 challenges that were selected (see the Annex for all responses):
- Technical problems (slow internet, Zoom not working, computer problems, etc.)
- The motivation of the students.
- Adapting learning activities to an online environment.
All of these are major challenges also for mainstream teachers, teaching online..
Challenges that were mentioned and that are specific to teaching signed languages online:
- Teaching a 3D language using a 2D medium.
- Eye strain.
- For new students: eye contact with the teacher.
- Visibility of the signers: lighting, window size, frame, background, and visual distractions.
- Students getting used to signing sitting down, signing within a smaller signing window, not using body movement.
3.3.8 Personal Support, Advice to Colleagues
Two open questions asked what support would help the respondent to become better online teachers, and what advice they would give to other sign language teachers:
Support that is needed:
- “To have with us an IT technician who can solve every teacher's wish.” And similar answers asking for technical support.
- Access to online training materials and to tools that can be used to make online training materials (mentioned 19 times)
- Training in online teaching - both training in technical skills and in didactic skills are mentioned 17 times.
- Teamwork, working together with other sign language teachers.
- A 3D room (see https://edscoop.com/gallaudet-university-holograms-asl/, mentioned once).
General advice to colleagues:
- Be patient,
- Don’t try to be perfect.
- One size does not match all students.
- First learn how to use Zoom, before you start teaching online.
- Cooperate with colleagues: “Collaborate and exchange with other sign language teachers.”
More specific advice:
- Keep classes small. “I strongly recommend the number of students is limited to four students per class.”
- Keep lessons short.
- Take more breaks.
Advice by respondents who doubt if signed languages can be taught online:
- Avoid it!
- I have no advice to give! I need advice myself!
At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown:
- SL (Sign Language) teachers had to quickly learn how to deal with online technology, had to select an online teaching platform and then learn how to use it. Often without or with limited access to support.
- SL teachers had to quickly Instruct learners in the use of the technology. Often, they also had to help them acquire the necessary hardware and internet access.
- SL teachers had to instruct learners in ‘Zoom etiquette’: the do’s and don’ts of being in an online meeting or class.
- SL teachers and students had to learn to adapt their signing style: full body signing is not possible online, the image is 2D instead of 3D, teachers and students cannot use eye gaze, pointing or use of space - all of these are problematic when teaching sign language online.
- SL teachers had to adapt their communication style. Online, it is not easy to use writing, body language, pantomime - strategies often used to communicate with beginners.
- SL teachers had to adapt their feedback and correction strategies: physical contact is not possible online, teachers cannot adjust handshapes of students, tap for attention, etc.
- SL teachers had to adapt their curriculum to meet the limitations of online teaching. In most cases this meant: shorter lessons, smaller groups.
- SL teachers had to adapt their learning activities. Many teachers like to use physical activities: walking, acting out, physical games. Activities that are especially important to break barriers with beginners. With online teaching, students and teachers are stationary behind their screens which makes many of these activities impossible.
- SL teachers had to find alternative ways to teach Deaf culture online.
- SL teachers had to adapt many of their learning materials for online use.
- SL teachers had to adapt learning outcomes and testing strategies.
- SL teachers had to learn how to deal with eye strain - both for the teacher and the student.
- SL teachers had to learn how to deal with all the problems that mainstream teachers had to deal with when teaching online. Online classes take more time and are less efficient than online classes. Teaching online leads to greater fatigue. And keeping students motivated and preventing drop out are major challenges for all online teachers.
There are also some advantages to teaching signed languages online. Most these are the, same as for mainstream teachers:
- Students & teachers don’t have to travel, teaching/learning can be from home. Especially in areas with fewer sign language teachers, this can be a major advantage.
- Online classes are usually shorter and more frequent than online classes. Generally, shorter, more frequent lessons are more effective than longer, infrequent sessions.
- Students can choose the sign language teacher that they prefer, independent of distance.
- It is easy for teachers to invite deaf signers from all parts of the country, all ages etc. to participate in a Zoom class and to interact directly with the students.
- Teachers can record classes; students who can’t attend a class can watch at a later date; also: teachers, students can review recorded lessons.