System opens classroom to everyone

Professor Martin Zinke-Allmang’s first-year Physics class has changed drastically over the last five years.

It’s not the content of his lectures. It’s not the room, his lecture style or even the students. It’s the accessibility of the lesson that’s come a long way, thanks to new software and help from Information technology Services (ITS) at Western.

Five years ago, Zinke-Allmang had a hearing-impaired student in a class that packs more than 1,000 registered students into North Campus Building 101.

“She needed to be able to do lip-reading, and that’s next to impossible in that room. We had to arrange to move that student to attend a smaller class, and this was not the choice of the student,” Zinke-Allmang said. “So, I was very happy this year when it worked out quite differently.”

Zinke-Allmang has two hearing-impaired students this time around and has arranged a new way to present them with the same classroom experience available to the rest of the class.

As Zinke-Allmang teaches, his lectures are recorded using Blackboard Collaborate, a virtual classroom environment facilitated by ITS. On that system are his preloaded PowerPoint slides, upon which he makes notes during the lecture. Everything is recorded by the system.

For hearing-impaired students like Ashlee Banyard, the program has a closed-captioning option. This allows her designated note-taker to type the lecture verbatim, providing Banyard with a real-time transcript she follows on her laptop screen.

Once the lecture is over, Blackboard Collaborate saves the lecture in its entirety with all individual parts synced – slides, audio, notes and closed-captioning. At that point, Banyard, or any other student for that matter, can relive the lecture at a later time, exactly as it went the first time around.

“Although I can get the (note-taker’s) notes, when you read over them, they sometimes don’t make sense. But if I see it on the close-captioning, it’s much easier to understand because she writes everything the professor says,” Banyard said.

She said the software and closed-captioning feature could be useful in a lot of classrooms and to a lot of students, not just her.

This is the first time the feature has been used in a Western classroom, said Jane Winkler of ITS, and the campus community could benefit from greater awareness of resources available to students who face challenges.

“Here’s Ashlee with challenges that most students don’t have to face, and here’s Martin, who teaches more than a thousand students at a time and he’s able to provide a service to Ashlee to get the same classroom experience as the rest,” she said.

Zinke-Allmang added while the benefit for students with hearing-impairment is great, the benefits of Blackboard Collaborate and its features are transferable.

“There’s a transferability to other courses – it is not really more work for the professor. It’s good for distance courses, and this idea is not entirely new. I look at my course and think this is the way to go.”