Summary of Chapter 4

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Early 2021, the lockdowns ended in most countries. Teachers and students were allowed to go back to classroom teaching. Most of them did, and most were very happy to be able to meet in person again. 

But things were not the same as before the lockdown. 

At the start of the lockdown, many teachers had had no experience with teaching online. During the lockdowns, they learned how to deal with many of the challenges. As one person mentioned in our survey: you cannot compare the first months of the lockdown with the last period of online teaching. It was very difficult at first, but after some months it became easier. We all learned. In the future, we will be better prepared.

During the lockdown, teachers also experienced some of the advantages of teaching online: 

  • Students and teachers do not have to travel. 
  • It is possible to offer more frequent short classes, instead of teaching for hours at a time. 
  • Students can do some of the work at home, in their own time, using online resources, webinars and recorded classes.
  • Teachers can teach students long distance. This is an advantage in countries with few sign language teachers. It even makes it possible to teach students in foreign countries. 

As a result, sign language teachers are now exploring the possibilities of hybrid teaching: how can online teaching technology and methods be integrated into classroom teaching practices? 

4. After the Pandemic

As soon as the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, most sign language teachers went back to teaching online. But things had changed, teachers and learners had become used to teaching, learning and communicating online. Things had even changed during the pandemic. As one of the respondents wrote on the Survey (see chapter 3): he or she would have answered some questions differently at the start of the lock-down period, compared to what the answers were now, several months later. 

During the first months of the Covid-19 lockdown, teaching online was new for both teachers and students. Technical problems had to be solved: some students did not have computers or internet connections or there were problems using them. Teachers had to get used to seeing their students in small 2D windows, instead of interacting with them face-to-face, physically. They had to learn to use Zoom or some other online platform. The curriculum had to be adapted to shorter, possibly more frequent lessons. New learning resources had to be found, learning activities had to be adapted. Students had to be contacted to inform them of all the changes. And then, they had to be motivated to attend the online classes. 

All of this, under time pressure, often without support and while learning to deal with other restrictions that were imposed by governments in an attempt to stop the spread of the Covid-19 infections. And of course teachers, students and their families were not immune. Many got sick themselves or had to care for family members who had been infected.

Coronavirus information signs are displayed in a bus stop in London, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, during England's third national lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak began. The U.K. is under an indefinite national lockdown to curb the spread of the new variant, with nonessential shops, gyms and hairdressers closed, most people working from home and schools largely offering remote learning. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Matt Dunham, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved) .  Source 

As one of the respondents wrote in our survey: “Never again!”. 

But this may have been more about the pandemic than about online teaching itself. 

In an online survey presented by ENSLT (the European Network of Sign Language Teachers) during an online workshop in January 2021, 35 (out of 45)  respondents stated that following the pandemic they would prefer to work using blended (or hybrid) teaching; only 8 highlighted that they would like a full return to their previous work patterns and 2 stated they will continue teaching remotely only (Lerose, 2021).

During the pandemic,online teaching had slowly become the new ‘normal’ for many teachers. Both teachers and learners had discovered that, although most preferred on-site, in-person teaching, teaching and learning online was possible and even had some advantages. 

After the pandemic, teachers began to experiment with hybrid teaching, a combination of teaching on-site and teaching online.     

4.1 Hybrid teaching

After the pandemic, many sign language teachers did continue to teach online, but now in combination with in-person learning on site: hybrid teaching. By the end of the Covid-19 lockdowns, both students and teachers had learned to use Zoom or some other online platform and most technical problems were probably solved. This made it easier for them to integrate some aspects of online teaching with their traditional in-person, on-site teaching. 

Hybrid teaching can take many forms:

1. A teacher can teach some students on-site, while other students watch and participate online. 

2. A teacher can teach some classes in-person on-site, and some classes online. 

The advantages of hybrid teaching can be:

  • Teachers and/or students can use their time more efficiently, because they do not have to travel to the meeting place for every class.
  • Students can prepare for classes by using online materials and videos, before they come to class. They can do this individually, in pairs, or in small groups. 
  • Students can do homework, assignments and tests online, in their own time.
  • It is easier for students to work together, before or after offline classes.
  • If all classes are recorded online, students who are not able to attend a class can watch the recording online.
  • Teachers can set up online 'office hours' during which students can consult them.

More research is needed to find out how effective, efficient and attractive different forms of hybrid teaching are for both teachers and students of sign languages - in different contexts. Hybrid teaching may well be appropriate for students studying a sign language at a university, but not so much for deaf children, their family members and the general public who are new to sign language and not used to communicating with a Deaf sign language users, whether online or offline.

Do the benefits of hybrid teaching outweigh the disadvantages of online teaching? Can new technology take away some of the disadvantages of online teaching a sign language? Again, sign language teachers do what they think is best for their students, without objective data to support their decisions.


4.2 Long Distance Teaching

Through the online teaching of sign languages, deaf children as well as adults across the country can learn a sign language from a qualified sign language teacher, especially important in countries where students otherwise would have to travel long distances to find a sign language teacher.  Even before the pandemic, this was common practice in for instance Norway. See the podcast on the SignTeach Online website: A virtual classroom for Deaf children (Int. Sign)

4.3 Teaching Students in Foreign Countries

Teaching sign languages online enables sign language teachers to teach their courses internationally, thereby expanding their market potential. It also enables students, both deaf and hearing, to learn a foreign sign language from 'native' sign language teachers.

Through online learning, Deaf children can for instance learn a foreign sign language from native signers, maybe even including signers of their own age. Deaf people planning to study or work abroad or to travel as tourists can prepare by learning the national sign language of the new country online, before leaving: a Deaf person in Italy can learn British Sign Language from a native British sign language teacher, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, there is very little research on the topic of sign language users learning a second (third, fourth) sign language. Anecdotal evidence on the one hand mentions the “dinner conversation paradox”: over a long dinner among Deaf users of different sign languages, skilled sign language users will be able to have surprisingly complex conversations.”  (In: Chen Pichler, Koulidobrova, 2015) . The authors note that: “While this characterization may not be entirely accurate, it emphasizes the conservable extent of potentially ‘transferable’ features among natural sign languages, even for those that are genetically unrelated to each other.” They also note that there is substantial evidence for ‘foreign signer accents,’, but that there is still very little published research on the topic of M1-L2 (same modality, different language) influence, phonological or otherwise.

Elswewhere on this website, you can find interviews with Deaf sign language users who know more than one sign language, asking them how and when they learned their first and additional sign languages.

In the online Survey for sign language teachers, only 8% of the teachers said they were already teaching sign language students in other countries only, 14% said they would be interested in doing this. 

To find out if there is indeed a ‘market’ for online classes teaching a foreign sign language, partners in the SignTeach Online project participated in a pilot study (IO3). The main conclusion: Yes, it is possible, but more research is needed. You can find the results of the pilot study on the project's website, presented in International Sign by the partners in the project.

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