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Teaching through a screen: The challenges of virtual American Sign Language

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Online ASL class

Like most classes at the University of Cincinnati, American Sign Language courses this semester are being taught in a virtual format. When the subject is based solely on visual learning, there is an additional level of potential disconnect. 

Teaching during a pandemic when classes are mostly virtual is challenging for professors and students alike. When the subject is based solely on visual learning, there is an additional level of potential disconnect. 

Like most classes at the University of Cincinnati (UC), American Sign Language (ASL) courses this semester are being taught in a virtual format. However, ASL is a subject in which you talk with your hands, and spoken word is discouraged to learn the language. 

Technical difficulties, bad WiFi and teaching through a two-dimensional screen are all issues that can cause a disconnect between ASL professors and their students. 

ASL and Deaf Studies Program Coordinator Emma Kreiner says the hardest part of teaching through a screen is helping her beginning-level students understand spatial requirements of ASL. 

“I can’t necessarily turn myself around to show them what the sign will look like from their perspective,” Kreiner said. Sign parameters can look skewed on a screen, as students learn from a two-dimensional surface rather than three-dimensional in person. 

Kreiner adds that it is sometimes hard to show how signs move or where they are produced without repositioning her body. For example, signs at the waist are nearly always out of the frame of the camera. “It’s not that it can’t be done,” she said. “But it does present some logistical challenges.” 

Another huge challenge that Kreiner and other ASL instructors face is that it is difficult to see students in Zoom breakout rooms practicing with a partner or small group. If classes were face-to-face, she could monitor the whole class simultaneously, note common mistakes or offer assistance to students all at the same time. 

“Online, that is much more difficult,” Kreiner said. “If I join students’ breakout rooms, it feels much more intrusive than it would in class if I just walked over.” 

ASL student Jack Gullett, a third-year marketing student with a minor in sports administration, says he dreads breakout rooms in Zoom for these classes. “I get almost anxious about them,” he said. 

Gullett is taking his second semester of ASL but feels unequipped to actually have a conversation with his fellow students due to the hardships of learning through online classes. 

He has been a learning community peer leader for three semesters, so he understands the disconnect between instructors and students. He would put students in their breakout rooms and hope they were doing the provided activity. If not, Gullett hoped they would at least be speaking to each other.

“I’m sure it is hard for the professor to gauge what’s going on in those rooms,” Gullett said. “Because it was hard for me too.” 

Even though Kreiner feels the disconnect between professor and student, she says teaching online has highlighted the importance of following up with students who have “ghosted” from class. 

“Checking in every morning, even with a simple ‘how are you guys?’, feels even more important than it did when we were all face-to-face,” Kreiner said. 

Kreiner acknowledges that everyone is exhausted, so engagement can be difficult. However, she says her students this year have been “rock stars.” In addition, she’s learned to be flexible and extend some grace to students when they need it. 

“It’s important to me that [students] know that class is a place to play with language, take risks and try something new,” Kreiner said. “We learn from our mistakes, and we can learn from each other’s mistakes – myself included.” 

Monitoring Zoom breakout rooms is a common challenge among ASL professors, as it is hard to encourage students to communicate in the target language. 

Sara Bianco, an ASL and Deaf studies professor, says that when she enters a breakout room, she cannot support the other students in their breakout rooms. 

“Communication takes longer through Zoom and class is 55 minutes,” Bianco said. “I go to each breakout room and then by the time I do that, [class] time’s over.” There is really no time to be able to support every student, she says. 

Trying to give students complete feedback and full support to learn and practice ASL is very difficult, Bianco says. She added that her most valued part of her job is directly connecting with students and figuring out how to include them in ASL and the Deaf community. 

However, an underlying problem Bianco says is that when the pandemic is over and students emerge into the Deaf community, they will not be 100% prepared for that environment. “Students can’t [learn] that on Zoom,” she said. 

Gullett agreed that he does not feel prepared for communicating in the Deaf community. 

He began ASL without knowing anything he says, not a letter of the alphabet or even a number. He explained how the ASL interpreter would translate the professor’s signs, but when watching through a screen, he would not be able to associate the signs to spoken English. 

Gullett makes it clear that this issue is not the professor’s fault, but the fact that everyone is stuck with online classes. “It’s just this dial that we have right now,” he said. “It makes it difficult.” 

While teaching ASL virtually is not ideal, Bianco says one upside is that students can now learn from anywhere. Students don’t have to be on campus, so no more students are able to take advantage of ASL classes. 

“I always support students learning ASL and learning about the Deaf community in general,” Bianco said. “So, that’s a way to support our community, and they can do it from anywhere.”

Multimedia Director

Kathleen Hornstra has been with The News Record since 2019 as the digital producer and now the multimedia director. She oversees TNR's website and social media presence.