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Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 The SignTeach Online Project
The SignTeach Online project aimed to help sign language teachers who had to switch to teaching online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was funded under the Erasmus+ programme's special call for COVID-related projects. During the pandemic, countries went into lockdown. Sign Language teachers had to learn and adjust to teaching sign language online, from one day to the next.
The project brought together a consortium of sign language teachers from different backgrounds, such as universities, deaf organizations, and independent teachers, to develop resources for sign language teachers across Europe.
1.2 The SignTeach Online Consortium
The main objective of the SignTeach Online project was to support sign language teachers in teaching signed languages online. The project developed an "addendum" to the SignTeach website and to the learning materials that were previously created in an earlier project (www.signteach.eu). The target group was sign language teachers across Europe. For many of them, reading written English is a problem. The project therefore used International Sign for most of the information, the sign languages of the partners, and easy-to-read English.
For the SignTeach Online project, the partners produced 3 kinds of output:
- A series of "Good Examples" videos was produced. Each “Good Example” shows sign language teachers teaching real students on various topics and at different levels. The videos included introductions and comments in both International Sign and the national sign language used in each video. A total of 36 Good Examples were posted on the project's website.
- To find out more about teaching signed languages online, the partners filmed interviews with sign language teachers and their students in their own country and abroad. These interviews can also be found on the project’s website.
- To share their insights on teaching online, partners produced ‘sign podcasts’. These are short, instructive presentations about different aspects of teaching sign language online.
- To prepare for the ‘post Covid’ period, we investigated the teaching of sign languages online to students in foreign countries. Unlike spoken languages, foreign sign languages are often learned through immersion and interaction with signers from other countries. Maybe there also is a market for online courses in foreign sign languages? We researched this by organising a pilot course in Italian Sign Language for the partners in the consortium, and by interviewing Deaf sign language users about how they learned a second, and sometimes third and fourth sign language.
To better understand the challenges that sign language teachers across Europe had to deal with during the lockdowns, we researched the literature: what are the main challenges for sign language teachers? In chapter 2, you can find a summary of this research. To find out about the specific challenges of teaching signed languages online, an online survey was produced. In chapter 3, you can find the results of this survey.
In the report, different terms related to teaching and learning are used:
- Online teaching refers to teaching that takes place over the internet, while offline teaching refers to traditional in-person teaching.
- Synchronous teaching or learning happens when the teacher and students are online at the same time and interact directly, while asynchronous teaching or learning occurs when there is no real-time interaction between the teacher and students.
- Blended teaching or learning can mean a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online instruction, or a mix of offline and online classes.
- Hybrid teaching or learning can refer to a mixture of online and offline instruction or a combination of students attending classes both in-person and online.
The focus of the SignTeach Online project and the report was primarily on teaching signed languages online. However, due to the return to offline teaching after the lockdowns, hybrid teaching was also considered.
Summary of Chapter 2. BEFORE THE PANDEMIC: CHALLENGES FOR SIGN LANGUAGE TEACHERS
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, sign language teachers faced unique challenges that differ from teachers of spoken languages:
- Sign language teaching has a relatively short history, with sign languages being repressed until the 1960s. As a result, most sign language teachers are Deaf individuals who acquired signing informally during childhood or later in life. The majority of these teachers lack formal training in sign language.
- There are very few formal teacher training programs specifically for sign language instruction. If any training opportunities exist, they tend to be informal. As a result, most sign language teachers rely on their personal intuition, practical experience, and their knowledge of sign language and linguistic concepts.
- Many sign language teachers developed their own curricula and learning materials. There is very little research that compares the effectiveness of these curricula. Teachers often have to ‘invent their own wheels’.
- There are few standardised tests for signed languages. This makes it difficult to compare the results of the different sign language curricula and teaching methods that sign language teachers use.
- Sign language teachers often struggle with access to mainstream literature and research on teaching methods and curriculum development. Additionally, many instructors work in isolation, with limited interaction or collaboration with their peers.
When sign language teachers had to start teaching online in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they encountered even more challenges. Some of these are the same as those of teachers of spoken languages. But there are also unique challenges specific to teaching signed languages. We used interviews and an online survey to find out how sign language teachers across Europe dealt with these challenges.
Summary of Chapter 3. During the Pandemic: Teaching Sign Languages Online
When countries went into lockdown because of the Covid-10 pandemic, schools were closed and all 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. And 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.
Summary of Chapter 4: AFTER THE PANDEMIC
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?
Summary of Chapter 5: Conclusions and Recommendations
During the Covid-19 pandemic, sign language teachers had to quickly switch to online teaching without prior experience. They lacked accessible training and struggled to help students with technology. Teachers also had to adapt their strategies and materials without support or collaboration.
To address these challenges, the SignTeach Online project aimed to fill some of these gaps. Sign language teachers in the consortium shared practices, answered questions, interviewed colleagues and students, and created “Good Examples” and "sign podcasts."
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the participants in the consortium had to meet on Zoom for the first 9 months of the project. When we finally were able to meet in person, March 2021, we were able to discuss teaching practices. We discovered what we had in common, and what we did differently. These discussions were very useful and contributed to the success of the project.
We do not intend to present any of our output as “THE” best practices for teaching signed languages online. Unfortunately, we do not have the data to support any of our recommendations. Our output however can be used for inspiration, for discussion, for training purposes.
Our Recommendations therefore are:
- We need more research on teaching signed languages offline and online.
- We need more collaboration between sign language teachers and trainers locally, nationally, and internationally. Teachers and researchers of signed languages and teachers and researchers of spoken language should work together to find out what they can learn from each other.
- We need an evidence-based model curriculum for signed languages based on the CEFR, that is suitable for different age groups.
- Affordable, user-friendly apps must be developed for video-based training activities.
- The EU must continue to fund projects for and by sign language users and teachers.
Implementing these recommendations will support sign language teachers in Europe and will promote and improve the teaching of the sign languages of Europe - and worldwide.