CLASS hosts Massive Open Online Course conducted in American Sign Language


In 2015, Professor Sharon Hill, undergraduate program coordinator with CLASS’ American Sign Language Interpreting (ASLI) program, had a vision. After attending a workshop led by the CLASS Office of Educational Technology (OET) and strategizing a plan with an instructional designer, her vision became clearer. The goal was simple and yet complex – design an ASLI online course open to the public, also known as an MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), that was accessible to the hearing impaired.

In 2008, the first-ever MOOC was offered. Universities across the country sponsor the creation of MOOCs to allow individuals from around the world to be simultaneously enrolled in a non-credit class and gain access to world-renowned education for free. There’s only one challenge – the language barrier. MOOCs are inaccessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Typically, MOOCs include video clips of a professor lecturing on a given topic. For deaf students, this content is inaccessible since closed captions or sign language interpreting services are rarely provided. Currently, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is in litigation with Harvard University and MIT for the failure to provide accessibility of online lecture videos and course content. The University of Houston decided to overcome this obstacle by creating the world’s first free, University-sponsored MOOC delivered in sign language.

The name of the course is American Deaf Culture, and the content is available via Coursera ( University of Houston ASLI professor Terrell Brittain, who is deaf and fluent in American Sign Language, agreed to deliver the course content. The course runs for six weeks and provides a historical overview of the American deaf community and its evolving culture. Deafness is explored, not as a disability, but as a cultural experience shared by those who use a visual-spatial language. Each week there are four to six content videos delivered in American Sign Language, with an English interpreter providing a voice-over along with closed captioning.

For Professor Hill, this has been a long but fruitful two-year journey. “I thought that MOOCs would be ideal for leveling the playing field for deaf individuals who were still stigmatized or prevented from accessing education,” states Hill. “However, I soon realized that the only way to make the MOOC truly accessible would be to create one delivered in sign language.”

Professors Hill and Brittain worked to refine a proposal to create the ASLI MOOC. “Professor Brittain was somewhat apprehensive about sharing his culture with the world, but I assured him that the world needed to see that a person who was deaf is only that – deaf, not disabled, not disadvantaged. The result is a magnificent academic experience that will inspire and educate both the deaf and hearing worlds,” says Hill.

Professor Hill’s passion for American Sign Language started at a young age. She did not truly understand the intricacies of American Sign Language until she enrolled in a formal language course. Hill explains: “It’s not just coded English on the hands, as many people think. It’s more similar to French in its syntax and grammar is displayed on the face. This made it extremely challenging for me to learn, let alone attempt to interpret into and out of.”

In 1996, Hill successfully obtained entry-level certification as a sign language interpreter and continued to develop her linguistic skills. She currently holds BEI Master Level, held by only 105 people in the country. She serves as the coordinator for the only bachelor’s degree program in the State of Texas teaching ASL Interpreting.

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