Amanda Everitt: Can online sign language courses match classes in the real world?

Posted on February 26, 2014



Online sign language learning has been around for a while. There is a stockpile of online courses teaching sign language around the world.

Just hit Google and there’s courses for adults, like SignWorld (a supporter of this site) and Family Sign Language here in the UK.

There’s them Baby Sign language classes. I am not going to get into the politics of whether these are “authentic” sign language courses. Let’s take the tack that sign language exposure is good, period.

But are there any courses for children?

I found one! Primary Sign, a company based in the North West of England. Knowing that it was difficult to send BSL teachers to every school, these guys came up with an online BSL e-learning kit for both deaf and hearing children aged 5-11.

Children can go through 13 modules at their own pace, learning signs about the weather, animals, emotions and other topics.

But what makes online courses work is not just creating beautiful resources. It is about putting processes in place so that the technology DOES improve learning.

For Primary Sign, there are over 30 games and quizzes. The child can check their understanding on the spot, and the teachers can print worksheets and certificates.

Hearing children can now learn BSL online

Pssst, here’s a scoop. For a limited time, Primary Sign have made their kits available for £19 on Group On* so you might want to get shopping or encourage your child’s school to subscribe. (The fees are different for schools.) It could be a great way to get classmates interested in learning sign language.

We all know that BSL is not yet part of the school curriculum. According to Signature’s communication manager, Signature is still in negotiations with the Department of Education to find a place for BSL as a GCSE subject, potentially as a modern foreign language. Other organisations are having their say too.

Even if BSL becomes part of the framework, we will need to think about the number of BSL teachers, quality standards and training.

The second hurdle is getting schools to agree to include BSL in their own programme. Language learning is optional, and with student numbers in German and French dropping almost 50% in the last decade, who’s to say BSL as a GCSE subject will be popular?

What to do? Get schools to warm to the idea first. Online learning can potentially be a way to do this. For four years in a row, Sign2Sing has taught children and adults songs online. Last year, about 115,000 people broke a Guinness World Record by singing and signing the same song at the same time, because of online learning.

Signing the wrong thing or bad singing may be beside the point because these people now know that sign language exists. Last week, these people tried again. We wait with baited breath to see whether another record was broken.

Some say online courses are a poor substitute for the real teaching in the classroom.

Maybe. But if done well, just perhaps, perhaps it will boost interest in sign language…

*The £19 Primary Sign deal on Groupon is available in certain cities: Manchester, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Derby, Sheffield, Liverpool, Bristol and Bath. Check out the deals here.

By Amanda Everitt – views are her own. To read more about sign language, literacy and technology check out Amanda’s blog here or follow @playbyeye

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