Video Remote Interpreting in Education

Last week, Amber and I went to the C2C Spring Forum 2011 in Parkville, Missouri. The topic of the day was something I have been learning about and sharing with you a lot recently: Universal Design in Learning

For my money, the best presentation was Alyson Pickus from SignOn. As she explained it, SignOn is a group of thirty folks in Seattle who provide services like signing and captioning remotely and in real-time. During an hour-long slideshow, she summarized her recent experience being a video remote interpreter for a Deaf undergraduate student.

VRI in the Classroom


MobileASL – University of Washington

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is a substitute or alternative to an on-site interpreter. A typical VRI classroom setup involves:

  • A laptop with a webcam for the student and interpreter to communicate with
  • A lapel microphone on the teacher for the interpreter to hear with
  • External computer speakers for the interpreter to be heard with, e.g. for asking the teacher questions from the student

The benefits of VRI over remote captioning or on-site interpreters include:

  • The Deaf student learns in their own language with the appropriate cultural expressions and dynamics
  • Cheaper, more timely and better interpreters than might otherwise be available locally
  • Students are excited and engaged to use video chat software they already use like Skype and iChat
  • Less distracting to the teacher and hearing classmates

The challenges of using VRI in the classroom include:

  • Even with advance materials and preparation, conceptually accurate signing requires a high-level of subject matter awareness from the interpreter
  • Younger students may have difficulty staying on camera
  • The coordinator may run into problems receiving not only initial, but continued technical support
  • The teacher might be uncomfortable with being listened to by someone unseen and far outside the classroom
  • Trouble maintaining the bandwidth necessary for signing (especially fingerspelling)
  • The interpreter has a very limited view of the classroom and does not see the teacher, projector screen, blackboard and classmates
  • Classroom discussion is off-mic, so any classmates’ questions and comments must be repeated by the teacher

As a population with a rich and distinct history with technology, I am finding a tremendous amount to be learned from Deaf education and culture.

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more about both the technical and sociological issues of interpreting American Sign Language, I highly recommend Reading Between the Signs by Anna Mindess. I found it to be a practical and anthropological look at Deaf culture.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a near-exhaustive multicultural curriculum full of some heartbreaking case studies, consider perusing the National Multicultural Interpretation Project.

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