Can Technology Really Bridge Classroom Accessibility Gaps?


College is an exciting and interesting time for many students. But for some, this season of their lives gives way to particular stress and frustration.

In the U.S., more than 20,000 deaf and hearing-impaired students attend a college or university each year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. These students are often left at a disadvantage in the classroom, with an extra set of challenges to contend with on top of the difficulties that come with mastering the course material.

This extra work — keeping up with sign language interpreters while simultaneously reading course material and taking notes — often results in learning challenges and lower grades. However, as technology integration and AI use grows in schools, new ways to bridge classroom accessibility gaps emerge, largely centering around transcription.

These tools elevate the learning process for all students leading to better comprehension, higher engagement and better grades. To capture these benefits for deaf and hearing-impaired students in particular, higher education leaders must focus on four key initiatives.

1. Prioritize transcriptions and captions – University transcription capabilities are a gamechanger for hearing-impaired students. With the amount of lecturing that’s done in the college setting, students need quick access to a text version of what’s spoken. As remote video lectures grow in popularity as well, captions are also a crucial aspect that educators must give thought to. Additionally, if professors show a video in class, they should ensure that captions are readily available for that material so hearing-impaired students can digest it in real-time with their classmates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act both require these offerings, so turning to an AI-powered transcription service allows for educators and students to gain quick access to accurate text versions of class teachings. Previously, transcription was hard to access because of the manual work that went into it. In relying solely on humans to do the transcribing, the turnaround time took far too long. And because of the time commitment, it was an expensive service. When using machine learning and AI technologies, educators can count on higher accuracy at a faster pace, leading to more precise results that continuously improve to reach near-perfect levels.

In fact, research from San Francisco State University suggests that these resources benefit all students, not just those with hearing impairments. In a study its researchers conducted, those who used captioned video achieved a full GPA point increase over students who did not.

2. Be proactive and flexible – Professors should anticipate student needs and plan for them, rather than only addressing them in a reactive way when a student asks for it. In order to be proactive, they should build their courses with accessibility in mind from the very beginning and plan on working closely with their college’s disability office.

In addition to being proactive about including accessible transcripts and live captioning in teaching material, professors should also be verbal about these additions. Whenever a student needs something different from the rest of the class, it can be tough to speak up and ask for it. By being vocal about your accessibility offerings when going over the syllabus and again throughout the course, you create a welcoming space for students to step forward and ask for the features to meet their needs.

3. Empower different learning styles – Not everyone learns the same way. Some of us are visual learners and others learn by doing. Some prefer to learn from a textbook while others require the interactive style of a small classroom lecture. Having a hearing impairment shouldn’t eliminate any option full-hearing students have. Educators need to make sure all options can be altered in ways so that all students can embrace them, regardless of hearing abilities.

The University of Colorado Boulder has caught onto this need and has created a Universal Design service as a resource for implementing best practices in course design. They offer educators workshops, one-on-one consultations as well as a detailed accessibility checklist for self-assessment to ensure that they’re providing a breadth of learning options to students with disabilities.

4. Think beyond the classroom and lecture hall – College is so much more than just class. Many schools boast long lists of extracurricular clubs and resources, such as writing centers, cultural associations and community service organizations. These activities are often hard for deaf and hearing impaired students to seamlessly join because of communication barriers.

To make the entire campus experience more accessible, all school-sponsored activities would do well to adopt similar measures as professors in the classroom. Disability service offices should strive to develop relationships with student life departments to ensure these same measures are incorporated to student organizations as well.

Pursuing a degree is a challenging journey on its own. Adding hearing impairment into the mix creates a whole other set of barriers. Luckily, the adoption of AI and machine learning tools will greatly increase the quality of transcription that colleges, universities and students have access to. While there is still plenty of change to affect, bringing transcription technology into the classroom makes both students’ and teachers’ jobs easier.