Videoconferencing: Broadening Horizons for KSD Deaf Students

Teaching deaf students involves more than scholastics, especially in areas where the deaf population is much smaller than the national average. In Kentucky, for example, only 3 percent are deaf, compared with 10 percent nationwide, which makes it difficult for students to interact with deaf people outside of the perimeter of the school.

"When you think about who our peers are, they are really other deaf schools," explained Deby Trueblood, director of technology at the Kentucky School for the Deaf. KSD has approximately 150 students spread out among elementary, middle, and high school levels. "We collaborate with hearing students all the time. We need to collaborate with other deaf persons. We need to have deaf role models as well as hearing role models."

Videoconferencing is part of the answer to this. "Because sign language is so visual, it is important that we empower our teachers and students with visual technology that will assist them to achieve at the highest levels possible," said Trueblood.

Incorporating New Technologies
Teacher Clyde Mohan has been at KSD for 30 years. Over time, he saw audiovisual technology evolve to the point where its benefits to education for the deaf became obvious. Mohan, who is deaf himself, was able to secure videophones for the school--a great first step in incorporating technology into the school.

"We just thought that the videophone had opened a whole new world to us," said Trueblood. The videophones are used in several ways: They provide communication between two people, provide an interpreter for a deaf person and a hearing person who does not know ASL or doesn't have a videophone, and allow staff members who are deaf and hard of hearing to communicate with each other and with the outside world.

But the videophones were limited in terms of how much they could integrate with other devices. So the school began to investigate additional technologies.

Researching Videoconferencing
"The need to serve both deaf and hearing impacts every technology decision we make here at KSD," said Trueblood. "We have both deaf and hearing staff evaluate the technology." She added that when it comes to communication technologies and the deaf, standards are high. "People who are deaf or hard of hearing are very ... savvy on this technology because it is their key to the world: They use it constantly," she said.

Another significant factor that makes visual technology decisions different from those of hearing schools is that there is always a third party who needs to be visible at all times. "Our interpreters are our most important people. They have to be seen," said Trueblood.

Furthermore, it isn't always easy to find audiovisual system integrators who understand the special needs associated with communications for the deaf. "We have had some disastrous occurrences," said Trueblood. "On the other hand, we have had vendors who have rolled up their sleeves and gotten right in here and said, 'I want a long-term relationship with you; teach me about your needs.'"

When videoconferencing was within financial reach, Mohan (who became KSD's videoconferencing project manager) and Trueblood worked closely together to select systems. They used Mohan's equipment assessment as a deaf person and Trueblood's as a hearing person. They identified a systems integrator who understood their challenges. Working with videoconferencing equipment company Tandberg, KSD ended up with custom-built systems. KSD has four units that provide conferencing for whole groups and 11 mobile units for classroom use. "Tandberg built equipment just for us," said Trueblood. "The design is two huge screens side by side--one for the interpreter and one for the presenter." She said it was purchased with an E-rate federal grant, which made it affordable.

First Impressions
"It is amazing what has happened with this technology," said Trueblood. Mohan, who finally saw his dreams for the school become a reality, certainly agrees.

"For our very first videoconference, we connected our first and second grade classes with a first and second grade class in New Mexico," said Mohan. "The kids introduced themselves and shared facts about Kentucky and New Mexico, and they really enjoyed it.

"We also had a video meeting with the Kansas School for the Deaf," he continued. "Our middle school students wrote short stories and then signed those stories to the middle school students in Kansas. Kansas students provided our students with feedback."

While the video fulfills the school's mission of uniting students, it also solves logistic challenges as well. "Let's say there are two students who need to take an Advanced Placement (AP) course in science," said Trueblood. "What do you do? You can't hire. But, if you have video communications equipment, you do have the possibility of one school having an AP teacher and sharing that teacher with other schools."

The systems have been instrumental in other types of outreach programs, too. The students have taken several field trips to the Puppetry Museum, where they learned about Native Americans and butterflies. They have visited the Museum of Radio and Television, where they learned about advertisements in political campaigns. They have joined in virtual field trips with other schools, including public schools with hearing students.

KSD is especially proud of the recent MegaDEAFConference, a two-hour live conference where six schools made 15-minute presentations on a student-produced topic of their choice. An impressive 48 sites joined the videoconference, including some from Canada, England, and Ireland. KSD students videojockeyed the entire two-hour event by not only introducing the presenters, but by researching and producing videos of places in Kentucky such as Churchill Downs, the first Colonel Sanders Restaurant, and Mammoth Cave.

Connecting to the World
Trueblood called the results phenomenal. "Many students come to school and they communicate in their natural language with only people at school--the people at home do not sign." Mohan and Trueblood therefore saw video conferencing as a way to broaden the students' exposure. The goals met by videoconferencing include ways to increase both English and ASL skills, expanding the community with whom the students communicate (sign), providing collaboration opportunities among deaf schools, and helping students see beyond their immediate world. They are also planning MegaDEAFConference 2010.

KSD, said Trueblood, is always researching technologies to remain cutting-edge and a leader in communications technologies for the deaf. "Research shows that visual technology is the equalizer for people who are deaf and hard of hearing," she said. "Our students and staff want what everyone else wants: to be contributing members in a global society. We want to be able to make a good living for our families, to be independent, and to have good jobs that we love."

About the Author

Denise Harrison is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, specifically in audiovisual and presentation. She also works as a consultant for Second Life projects and is involved with nonprofits and education within the 3D realm. She can be reached here.