Exactly 200 years after the nation’s oldest permanent school for the deaf opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817, the University of Houston is applying an old standard to accommodate the deaf and hard-of-hearing in online classrooms.

UH is the first in the country to apply sign language to a massive online open course, fondly known as MOOC. MOOCs have increased in popularity since they were launched in 2008 as a way to broaden access to college education. There’s no payment required, no institutional enrollment and no way for the deaf to participate because technology such as closed captioning hasn’t been offered.

That is, until UH’s American Sign Language Interpreting program (ASLI) decided to experiment with the first ever MOOC taught in American Sign Language.

“The goal is to level the playing field, because if education is available and accessible, then anyone can learn and improve themselves,” said Sharon Hill, coordinator of the ASLI program, about the utility of original MOOCs. “That is great, except for individuals who are deaf.”

Hill and her colleagues in the UH ASLI program created the first course, which happens to focus on the history of deaf culture. They plan for MOOCs in traditional coursework to follow.

“Teaching a MOOC in American Sign Language allows many around the world to ‘meet’ a deaf individual and see that limitations do not exist simply because someone is deaf,” said Terrell Brittain, ASLI instructional assistant professor at UH. “It allows them to see that American Sign Language is an authentic and actual language.”

“The key reason for undertaking this MOOC is exposure,” Brittain said. “The world needs exposure to the fact that deaf culture exists and is worthy of being studied.”

The course, which began in March, lasts six weeks. Brittain provides video lecture content in ASL, and an English interpreter provides a voice over.