Ensuring inclusivity and clear audio in hybrid learning environments helps institutions create an environment where all participants engage.

Ensuring clear audio in hybrid learning environments

Ensuring inclusivity and clear communication in hybrid learning environments helps institutions create an environment where all participants can fully engage and benefit from the learning

Key points:

The popularity of online and hybrid learning is increasing in higher education. Chief Online Officers (COOs) who participated in the latest Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) survey reported “growth or strong growth for fully online and hybrid programs…at their institutions.”

The benefits of hybrid learning programs

Providing students options to attend classes in person or online as their schedules and circumstances allow means more people can participate in learning. Students with caregiving responsibilities or who travel frequently for work can attend class even if they cannot be physically present in a classroom. For students with disabilities that make in-person learning difficult and for instructors who live far from their affiliated school or university, video conferencing platforms provide connection to others online and in physical classrooms, enabling discussion and collaboration regardless of location.

Video conferencing platforms can also support remote learners and instructors with hearing loss or who find it challenging to hear due to background noise, distance, language, or an inability to see and interpret a speaker’s facial expressions. Steps they can take to hear clearly and understand include adjusting the volume on their laptops and headsets, moving to a quieter and less distracting space, and turning on closed captioning. However, for in-classroom students and instructors who use assistive listening devices, hearing and understanding remote participants can be challenging.

How assistive listening systems help people hear

Assistive listening systems are required in classrooms and lecture halls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Systems use different technologies, including radio frequency, infrared, induction loop, or Wi-Fi, to transmit sound from an audio source such as an instructor’s microphone or TV directly to the listener’s ear via a receiver. A receiver typically is a small, portable unit users borrow from the school. Listeners can connect headphones to the receiver, or, if they wear hearing aids or cochlear devices with a telecoil, use a portable neck loop connected to the receiver to transmit audio to their telecoil-equipped hearing device.

Audio over Wi-Fi-based assistive listening systems let listeners use their smartphone or other smart device as a receiver. Listeners using audio over Wi-Fi assistive listening systems download a free app, connect to the school’s Wi-Fi network, stream audio to their smartphone, and listen with headphones or earbuds connected to their phone. If they have Bluetooth® enabled hearing devices or cochlear implants, audio streams from their smartphone to those devices.

Assistive listening devices are not just for individuals with diagnosed hearing loss. Anyone can benefit from them because they filter out ambient noise so only clear audio from the speaker is transmitted to the listener’s ear.

Capturing remote audio for delivery to assistive listening transmitters

The challenge school administrators and AV coordinators need to be aware of is that audio from remote participants does not always feed into the classroom sound system that captures audio for delivery to assistive listening transmitters. Often, technologies used to support remote participants do not have an audio output to feed into the assistive listening system, so sound from remote participants plays only through the speaker bar in the classroom. This means students and instructors in the classroom using assistive listening devices will not hear audio from remote participants via their assistive listening receiver.

Best practices to ensure clear audio in hybrid learning

While limitations of some communication platforms can make it challenging for assistive listening device users to hear remote learning participants, there are steps schools and universities can take to mitigate these.

Following are best practices to foster an inclusive listening experience for all participants in hybrid learning environments and optimize audio clarity and intelligibility.

  • Ensure your school or university assistive listening system meets ADA requirements. Post information about system availability and make it easy and convenient for students and instructors to access and use assistive listening devices.
  • Alert system administrators, AV coordinators, and student support teams to the limitations of assistive listening systems in hybrid learning environments and confirm there is an audio output feed to direct sound from platforms supporting remote participants into the classroom sound system.
  • Encourage remote participants to turn on their video (as they are comfortable and able) and to look into the camera when they speak so students and instructors in the classroom can see and interpret their facial expressions.
  • Remind all learning participants – on site and remote – to move close to a microphone and speak clearly and slowly.
  • Request that remote participants mute their microphones when they are not speaking. As much as possible, all participants (on-site and remote) should limit background noise and distractions that make it difficult for others to hear clearly and decipher what people are saying.
  • If permitted, and with participants’ consent, record hybrid class meetings and discussion to share with all participants so they can watch/listen to content and discussion they may not have heard or understood initially. Use a transcription service to provide text of captured audio and video.

The increasing popularity of online and hybrid learning programs in higher education is evident, offering students greater flexibility and accessibility. Ensuring inclusivity and clear communication in hybrid learning environments requires careful consideration and implementation of assistive listening systems and best practices. By adhering to ADA requirements, addressing the limitations of current technologies, and promoting effective communication strategies, institutions can create an environment where all participants can fully engage and benefit from the learning experience, regardless of their location or individual needs.

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