Most universities in the UK have paused or cancelled nearly all on-campus activity. While universities could not close completely, many students were urged to return home. After cancelled face-to-face lectures, seminars and assessments students are now faced with the prospect of finishing the academic year online. Universities and exam boards have put in place measures to ensure students can be assessed online. University staff have gone to great lengths to ensure students have access to resources from home and our feedback from British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, notetakers and teachers of the deaf about this transition has been positive.

Clarion UK would like to establish effective, reliable and sustainable remote services for HI students during the Covid-19 pandemic. In every remote BSL session, we learn something new and want to share these insights. Hopefully, they can be used by HI students and universities to make remote working easier.  We asked BSL interpreters with experience of remote bookings “What is your advice to ensure they run smoothly?” and here are their answers:

Tech-savviness is key

The biggest challenge is the technology involved. For the session to run smoothly you are relying on a multitude of different technologies. Typically the lecture or seminar will take place on one platform and the interpreter and student will communicate on a separate platform. For example, the lecture will be streamed on Microsoft Teams with the interpreter translating the lecture into BSL on Zoom. They use separate platforms because Teams reduces the interpreters’ image to a thumbnail so the HI student cannot see them.

A lecture often begins with all participants muted and with their videos off. The interpreters dial into the lecture so they can hear the content. The other participants and lecturer won’t know the BSL interpreters are on the video call unless they introduce themselves in advance. This can also make it difficult for interpreters to ask questions or slow the lecturer down, as they could in a face-to-face lecture.

Have a Back-Up

It is helpful to have a back-up method for video communication. The student can be disconnected from their interpreters during the lecture because the technology fails. Platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp can cut out suddenly and the users aren’t aware of the reason. Before the session begins the student and interpreter could agree which platform they will switch to if their original platform cuts out and then they can get back on track quickly when something goes wrong. If the interpreter and student do become disconnected it is also helpful to record the lecture so the interpreter can explain to the student the content that was missed after the session. Either the interpreter or student can record the missed content.   

Use a Computer 

The student will need to have the appropriate equipment to stream the lecture. It is very difficult for a student to access a lecture and interpreting services without a laptop or computer. Some students rely on phones, but we have found sessions on phones or tablets often fail. SFE take the view that all students need a computer to support their studies; a few years ago SFE started contributing £200 towards the cost of a laptop. With students working remotely it is important they have the basic equipment needed for their studies. If you’re working with any DSA funded students without a laptop you could inform them of this option and tell them to reach out to their assessor for more information.  

Hope For the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Proper preparation will help the remote BSL session run smoothly. It is useful for the interpreters to speak to the student, lecturer or person leading the meeting and somebody from the university’s IT team, before the lecture. It will help if interpreters can have access to any materials such as slides and hand-outs in advance. We also recommend setting up a test before the student’s first lecture. The practice will mean you can identify and hopefully fix any technical issues before the live lectures.

Prepare the Working Environment  

The interpreters will find it easier to understand the student if their working environment is: 

  • Quiet
  • Private
  • Has a clear background
  • Is well lit
  • Comfortable

Use the Appropriate Platform

Remote BSL sessions are now mostly take place on free online video platforms. For BSL sessions Zoom is the prefered platform because the student can ‘pin’ their interpreter and the video is high quality. On other platforms such as Microsoft Teams, the interpreters are reduced to thumbnails and the student can’t see them. We have also heard positive feedback about Skype and Google Hangouts. However, we received comments that Facetime, Glide and WhatsApp aren’t as reliable.  

Don’t Assume

Since the pandemic started, there has been a reliance on subtitles to communicate lectures and seminars to HI students. It is best to consider carefully whether these are appropriate and not assume HI students are happy to use them. Whether or not subtitles are an adequate communication method will depend on the student.  English and British Sign Language are two very distinct languages. If a student has been brought up signing and BSL is their first language, then a BSL interpreter will probably be their preferred method. Other students may be happy to rely on subtitles if their first language is English. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to this. Our advice is to speak to the student as early as possible and let them make the final decision.

Remote working requires a willingness to embrace technology and is unpredictable.

All students deserve seamlessly translated lectures from their first day at university to their last. We have adapted quickly so we can achieve this during the pandemic and are collaborating with interpreters and students to identify the best ways to work. If you are interested in using our remote services please get in touch with Jenny or Sam. We are also happy to provide guidance and advice on remote BSL sessions.


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