Gallaudet’s Earl Parks says video cameras in the classroom allow students to more easily keep up with whomever is talking.

Feb 26 2009

Cameras Enhance Teaching and Learning at Gallaudet University

Washington, D.C., school for the deaf and hard of hearing uses video cameras to supplement classroom lectures.

Cameras assist classroom discussion at schools for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Imagine you’re sitting at the back of a cavernous, crowded lecture hall. You can’t make out the face of your instructor clearly, much less understand what the student 25 rows down is saying to him. The students sitting in front of you and the angle of your seat obscure your view of a critical discussion of class material that’s taking place at the front of the room.

Now imagine you’re deaf and unable to communicate without a clear line of sight between you and the hands and faces in front of you.

Blocked views are more than a nuisance at colleges that serve deaf and hard-of-hearing students. They can be the equivalent of a wailing siren on verbal classroom communications. The deaf and hard-of-hearing student community in the United States relies on American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate in classrooms. To be understood, ASL requires an unobstructed view among students and between instructor and student.

As a result, leading deaf and hard-of-hearing universities and colleges see the improved functionality of video cameras as a critical supplement to their classroom lectures. Video cameras in classrooms can sharpen communication among instructors and students, offering deaf and hard-of-hearing students the visual language that helps them learn more effectively.

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., has nurtured ASL as a formal language since the 1950s. To facilitate ASL in its classrooms, the school installed “push to sign” technology in eight classrooms in its recently completed Sorenson Language and Communication Center.

Visual Language

Earl Parks, director of academic technology at Gallaudet, says because most of the students sign, the school implemented video capture technology to enable video capture of student participation and interaction in class by utilizing pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) cameras with control technology.

Other colleges for the deaf and hard of hearing have also embraced cameras as an integral part of classroom IT infrastructure. The Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf in New York installed networked IP cameras in some of its class laboratories. The cameras let students practice and record presentations and lessons in ASL.

“You’re dealing with a visual language and creating a simulated environment,” says Linda Siple, professor in NTID’s ASL and Interpreting Education department. “Here, we have digital technology and computers to provide ways to simulate real-life experience that professionals would find themselves in.”

Students at NTID turn in their assignments via digital video, according to Siple. Amber Tietje, a second-year interpreting student from Campbell, N.Y., says the digital video lab is easier to use than the former lab, which used only video tapes. “With digital, it’s a lot easier to view it again,” Tietje says. “And it’s a lot easier handing stuff in. It’s very quick. You can come right in and do the assignments and use a flash drive instead of tapes.”

Augmented Lectures

At Gallaudet, the camera implementation augmented a new lecture capture and publishing capability in the school’s Sorenson Language and Communication Center classrooms. As professors used the lecture capture system, it became clear that while it captured instructors at the front of the classroom, it couldn’t adequately track or frame students, whose comments and interactions were critical to classes.

“In traditional settings, student participation is recorded through use of audio and microphones, but that would not work for our students and teachers, obviously,” Gallaudet’s Parks says. “We realized that the project was not going to succeed unless we implemented some sort of mechanism that would allow capture of students in their seats.”

Parks says the school tried tracking technology as well as floor sensors to record instructors as they taught. But two years ago, they found that the tracking was not sophisticated enough to keep a tight shot on the instructor when he or she was moving, and there was also an unacceptable delay in the system’s response.

“Basically, what happened was that the instructor would go off camera, and there would be a two- or three-second delay before the system realized that the camera needed to move, and by then what the instructor was saying was lost, and he or she may have then moved to another location,” Parks explains.

The classrooms in the Sorenson building were already equipped with three wall-mounted Sony EVI D70 PTZ cameras attached to a Polycom video conferencing system. The cameras, with their strategic positioning around the classrooms, are a critical part of the push-to-talk capabilities, according to Parks.

Those three cameras, supplemented by a fourth installed specifically to support the lecture capture application, are connected to a control system that allows up to 24 preset positions per camera. Programmed presets in control units at students’ desks allow immediate camera selection. The four cameras — with various presets unique to each camera — cover all angles and sightlines in the classrooms, he says.

Students can select the appropriate camera to view other students and instructors during classroom discussions and presentations wherever they are.

“There are 24 possible presets that we could set up. For a classroom of 20 student seats, we assigned one preset per two seats, and then assigned three for the instructor — close-up, mid-shot, and wide-shot,” he says.

Unforeseen Benefits

Parks says students and instructors appreciate the capabilities, but have suggested some tweaks. One modification they asked for was confidence monitoring, or preview monitors. Because there is some delay between the changes from one preset to another, students and faculty do not always know when the camera is on them, so the school added confidence monitors on both sides of the room, one from the students’ perspective, and one from the instructor’s.

Overall, responses have varied, says Parks. Some had issues with delays that interfered with the flow of discussion and conversation in the classroom. And students with visual disabilities appreciated the management of class discussions that are imposed by the technology. In other words, only one person can talk at a time, and the interactions are slowed down, which let visually challenged students keep up with whomever is talking.

“Another positive result out of this was that the managed discussion approach also helped new signers more effectively follow class discussions and not be as lost or out of it when discussions intensify or become faster,” Parks says.

Hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the United States now accept ASL in fulfillment of language requirements for entrance and graduation.


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