News and Views

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Coreen McGuire – The Pandemic and Teaching Practice: thoughts on subtitles and accessibility

The fourth in our series of blog posts offering perspectives on Pandemic Pedagogy, is by Coreen McGuire, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at Durham University. Her first book, Measuring Difference, Numbering Normal: Setting the standards for disability in the interwar period combines history of medicine, science and technology studies, and disability history. She won the Disability History Association prize for outstanding article in 2020 and is currently working on a co-authored book project on British scientist Dr Phyllis Kerridge’s contributions to science in Britain with Dr Jaipreet Virdi for Johns Hopkins Press.

You can find out more about Coreen’s work at her website, (www.coreenmcguire.com) and on Twitter @coreen_anne


Hearing loss affects around 12 million people (1 in 5 adults) in the UK.[1]  Despite its ubiquity, it remains a stigmatised condition that some choose not to disclose or to hide from people in the workplace due to fear of discrimination. The pandemic has had especially pernicious effects on Deaf people. [2] It has also been harmful to the broader spectrum of people who present as hearing and who do not or cannot disclose their hearing loss. Imagine if you will, a person who has successfully managed their hearing loss in the workplace prior to the pandemic using a combination of hearing aids, lip-reading, and other assistive technology. Now working at home, their meeting and interactions with service-users take place over zoom where there are no captions and speakers often turn their videos off due to low bandwidth (precluding lip-reading). The impossibility of using (most current NHS) hearing aids with headphones means that they have to rely on their remaining residual hearing to try to comprehend their colleagues. This means that their attention and energy is constantly exhausted in the pursuit of basic comprehension, leading to fatigue, mistakes, frustration, and accusations of incompetence. The situation is so intolerable that this person is planning to quit a highly skilled job that they have worked at for over 25 years.[3] If this highly trained professional is finding it impossible to request or receive adequate support for managing their hearing loss, then one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the many students now working in similar situations.[4]

Online learning has exacerbated existing problems around hearing loss and technology. Despite the fact that the technology that would allow people with hearing loss to participate in online learning is available, it has been frustratingly underused and underappreciated. At the start of last term, I searched advanced zoom features to try and find live subtitle functionality. I found a feature that allowed me to enhance my appearance; there was not one for captions. Building these kinds of priorities into technologies is a choice, and one that has caused widespread frustration.

Subtitles are a brilliant learning tool and a good example of a ‘curb cut effect’. This effect is so called because when disabled activists in the US fought to create dropped kerbs for wheelchair use it was quickly apparent that this design feature also benefited groups including caregivers using prams, children using bicycles, and those delivering heavy goods. In this way, assistive technology ends up benefiting everyone in society.

Subtitles work in this way because while though were originally designed by and for Deaf people, they are now appreciated by a much larger swathe of users.[5] They allow people to watch videos while in a noisy environment or when in a more public space, something that is especially beneficial to students who do not have private study space while working at home. They help comprehension for students for whom English is not a first language, and help people learn languages more effectively. They improve our ability to understand and retain technical information. For instance, a student learning Scandinavian history for the first time has told me that having captions would allow them to effectively recall and search for information on historical individuals whose names are not obvious from their pronunciation. Crucially, subtitles help people for cognitive reasons as they aid comprehension and processing. Indeed, they may be one of the most valuable teaching aids we have as they improve general cognition, attention, and comprehension of material.[6] That they help us both retain information and remember material means they are an invaluable revision tool. However, incorporating these tools into university teaching has presented some considerable challenges.

For the purposes of this blog, I have been using captions and subtitles as synonymous terms, which is not strictly accurate. A simple way of thinking about the difference between the two is that subtitles involve translation, while captions simply reproduce speech. What is critical to note is that automatic captions are an inherently flawed solution. Voice recognition technologies tend to rely on biased data sets, which lead to inadequate and faulty results—especially for users with higher voices and/or with non-standard accents. As a historian of technology and disability, I am fascinated by that fact that this is due to the origination of this technology in the telephone system.[7] As a Scottish woman however, I am just frustrated. Systems that work algorithmically are better and I have used this effectively to transcribe oral histories taken online. So far, though, I have not been able to use these systems to effectively live-transcribe speech, though there are promises that this may soon be possible.

In the case of pre-recordings, far better are STL subtitles, which allow users to edit grammar, font, format, and correct any errors. They are much easier to design so the text appears in exact synchronicity with the spoken word, which is far better for comprehension. This ensures that the subtitles are accessible for users with dyslexia or sight loss. I should note here that almost all my knowledge about these processes is owed to the generous sharing of knowledge of colleagues (particularly on Twitter) who have shared their practices for creating subtitles.[8] I spent time over the summer working on embedding subtitles into online videos and became fairly accomplished at it. However, it takes a huge amount of time to do well. A five-minute introductory film I created for one module before the start of term took me a full Saturday to successfully subtitle. Even allowing for increased speed from practice, this is an impossible ask to put on top of a full teaching load in the best of times, never-mind while working from home in a pandemic. Realistically, we cannot ask individual lecturers to take responsibility for providing subtitles. Help and support for this, including live transcription services, must be embedded into the wider infrastructure of the University, ideally backed by government support.

The coronavirus pandemic and the repeated UK lockdowns have revealed patterns of societal inequities through the repeated correlation between inequality and high mortality. Working from home has also underlined structures of privilege in the subtle advantages that households with good access to WIFI, green-space, and flexible working patterns have over those without. Yet the shift from office to home and the move from teaching face-to-face to teaching online has had some advantages. For those with chronic illnesses, the disabled, and any students who does not fit the ‘traditional’ student profile virtual learning technologies have allowed some greater degree of control over learning, flexibility around teaching, and opportunity for participation. It is crucial that these changes to teaching practice and these opportunities remain in place long term. Subtitles are a crucial part of the way that we can retain and embed accessibility into our learning in the long term.

Notes:

[1] Royal National Institute for the Deaf, ‘Facts and figures’ Accessed January 2021 <https://rnid.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/>

[2] The Pandemic has disproportionately negatively impacted on Deaf people including on their ability to access healthcare according to a survey done by Sign Health, Accessed January 2021  https://signhealth.org.uk/resources/coronavirus-impacts-report/

[3] I am presenting this as a hypothetical scenario to retain this individual’s anonymity.

[4] Managing hearing loss is a term deployed by Karen Sayer and Graeme Gooday in their 2017 book, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930

[5] Many auditory technologies we now rely on have resulted from disabled innovation.

[6] M. A. Gernsbacher, ‘Video Captions Benefit Everyone’ Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences, 2:1 (2015), 195–202. doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

[7] M. Mills and X. Li, ‘Vocal Features: From Voice Identification to Speech Recognition by Machine’, Technology and Culture 60, 2 (2019)

[8] Disabled activists on Twitter are a constant source of knowledge and innovation and I’ve been especially grateful to advice garnered from Jai Virdi, James Sumner, and Vanessa Heggie. I’ve also been impressed to organisations who have supported subtitles in their conferences, such as the British Society for the History of Science. Megan Baumhammer and Sarah Qidwai also did a brilliant job of making their virtual HistsTM conferences accessible.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Grace Deignan – Being a History student during the pandemic

In this third post in our follow-up to Pandemic Pedagogy, we thought we would share one of the entries to our student video competition, from Grace Deignan, a third-year History student at the University of Glasgow. Grace offers some reflections on her experiences of student life during the pandemic and has also written a short reflection below. 


“Working online at University has obviously been a huge shift for students all across the country who are continuing to work towards their degree during the COVID pandemic. Online university undoubtedly has its pros and cons. I do consider myself extremely lucky to be in a position where I can still do my classes and feel like I am learning about my subject when I know so many people aren’t in the same position. My lecturers make the effort each week to create some sense of community in the class so that learning doesn’t seem so artificial and show how we can still make friends and have different experiences when we are stuck at home. However, I do greatly miss my life on campus. I believe that having interactive experiences with lecturers, university staff and other students is why most people choose to come to university. I look forward to when I can be back on campus and go back to old teaching methods because whilst online university is a great substitute at the moment, I could never imagine this mode of teaching creating the same level of satisfaction and enjoyment as a permanent shift online.” 


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Lucinda Matthews-Jones – The Paper-Based Digital Classroom

The second blog post following on from our Pandemic Pedagogy initiative is by Lucinda Matthews-Jones, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. She teaches nineteenth-century gender and urban history modules. Her dynamic and innovative teaching approaches were recognised in 2018 when she awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Individual Teaching Award. Beyond the classroom, she researches ideas of home and urban domesticities in the British Settlement Movement, 1880-1920. Lucinda tweets @luciejones83.


I am a paper-based lecturer and teacher. Before COVID-19, you would have found me moving around my university building with large rolls of paper and a tote bag filled with coloured pens, glue sticks, post notes, and scissors. For me, asking students to work on paper in groups or as individuals enabled them to break down and cement their ideas through a visual format. It helped me to see what they had picked up and to expand these points in classroom discussions.

But how could I replicate this in the digital classroom? There has been a tendency to think that this needs to be done through digital tools. But if the non-digital class can be based on mixed media then why not the digital, too? Why must the digital classroom be paperless? It felt like digital fatigue had hit both me and the students in the second half of the semester in Autumn 2020. Discussions with personal tutees and other students had made me increasingly aware that recorded lectures were taking a lot of time and energy both to produce and consume. As History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook observed ‘screen-time and remote interaction have a cumulative effect; the result is mentally and physically draining’.

My first-year students had a ‘how to respond to your feedback’ seminar coming up for their academic skills module and I wanted to think more creatively about how to get them to engage with the department’s writing guide. I decided that breaking it down and asking students to create a zine relating to the section that they had been assigned would help them to process the complex information written down in the guide and get them to think about how to communicate this in a creative manner. Students were sent class instructions through our VLE (see below).

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Students reported that the exercise encouraged them to read the material differently by emphasising the need to break it down and to think about how to display the guide’s information. They enjoyed the idea that the exercise was for a wider audience and not just them reading through the guide on their own. At the end of the session, contributions were sent to me and put into a PDF.

Handwriting and hand drawing can improve people’s ability to remember. Hetty Roessingh, for instance, has noted that handwriting notes and sketching has enhanced her students ‘understanding and remembering’ by encouraging them to make ‘personal connection’ through ‘creative thought’.  Roessingh continues that ‘hand-written notes matter and endure over time.’ Asking students to do paper-based creative exercise also changes the embodied experiences of digital learning. It encourages the eyes to look down and focus on the task, minimising screen time during a seminar.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

This session was intended to be light-hearted and a bit different from previous weeks. What I found was that I really enjoyed it. The conversations were dynamic and interesting as I moved around the breakout rooms. I felt more like me as a lecturer, having neither the know-how nor confidence around some digital technologies that others have used to transition their teaching online. Paper based activities will now be the focus of my teaching in semester 2.

What paper-based activities have you been using in your teaching? I would love to hear!

Class instructions

To help you prepare for the next assessment we will be digging into the LJMU Writing Guide. Together we will create a zine of top tips from this based on your feedback and what surprises you from the guide and feel your peers would benefit from.

Before class: 

  • Please make sure you have downloaded: LJMU_Writing_History_v1.pdf
  • Have some paper and any coloured pens to hand. You can also bring newspaper, magazines, glue, and scissors if you want to do something more multimedia. But you do not have too. You can do this exercise on a class.

In class: 

  • You will be spilt into groups and given a section
  • Be able to take an image of your hand out and email to  Lucie for her to collate.
  • Be prepared to summarise and explain your zine page.

Want to know more about Zines? Read here: How to Make a Zine: Guide to Making Your Own Zine During Quarantine – Thrillist (Links to an external site.).


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Amy Louise Blaney – Recreating Informal Spaces in Virtual Learning Environments

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to affect the ways in which history is taught and assessed at universities. Following on from our Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, History UK has commissioned a series of blog posts exploring how staff, students and institutions have responded to this continually evolving situation and the pedagogical challenges it has presented.

The first post in this series is by Amy Louise Blaney, a PhD student at Keele University. Her thesis examines the afterlife of the Arthurian legend in the long eighteenth-century and its intersection with national identity formation. Amy is also a part-time lecturer in English at Staffordshire University, as well as a co-editor for Keele’s Under Construction postgraduate journal.


Covid-19 required rapid adaptations of teaching pedagogy and practice and it has been heartening to see HE teachers and lecturers engaging in innovative, accessible, and original teaching in these challenging environments.

Recreating informal and social spaces has, however, proved more difficult. As a student, I have missed the informal conversations that take place with both my peers and my lecturers – the chance encounters over coffee, or the chats that occur before and after lectures and seminars. And as a tutor, I’ve found re-creating such spaces online particularly challenging.

My first online teaching session felt sorely lacking in informality. Launching straight in seemed to leave students cold despite my attempts to create a cheery atmosphere. Getting them to talk to each other – let alone me – felt like trying to cross a digital wilderness, bereft of the friendly gestures that help in situ teaching sessions to get off the ground. We got there eventually, but I came out of it feeling that there was something lacking.

I mentioned this in passing to my mum – a Quality Improvement Officer for the NHS – and she suggested taking 5/10 minutes to ‘warm up’ my crowd. Warm-up activities had worked well with the adult learners on her training courses and, she said, had helped increase engagement.

Given that anything is better than talking into a void, I decided to give it a go and re-arranged my next session to allow for 10 minutes ‘warm-up’. Deciding that even if I couldn’t get students to engage, I could attempt to raise a smile, I raided the archive of internet memes and decided to ask how they felt on a scale of 1 – Obi-Wan.

Scale of 1 to Obi Wan

I’ll be honest, when I got to the relevant slide and asked the question, I was expecting radio silence. Instead, I got a chorus of chat messages with students responding with a number, then replying in chat or via voice if I asked them for a little more detail about how they were feeling. It wasn’t in any way related to the course content, but it woke everyone (myself included) up, got them mentally into the room, and got them talking to both me and to each other.

Since then, my group have told each other how we feel on a scale of cat, made a Mentimeter word cloud about Shakespeare, and played ‘guess the seventeenth-century poet’ together. Students would start chatting as soon as they logged in, asking each other how they were, and responding when I asked them how they’d found the reading and preparation. Sessions were more engaged and livelier. It felt like being in a classroom.

Our activities were only indirectly related to the course content but creating space for such informal conversations is, I feel, vital to learning. As well as providing a sense of comradery and shared experience, conversations that take place within informal learning spaces can inspire new directions in thinking and research and allow for the sharing of ideas and worries in a safe and collegiate space. And if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need those connections more than ever.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Research Resilience – Call for Contributions

History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are teaming up to explore how archivists and historians have adapted their research projects and ways of working as a result of closures and restrictions on access. We are currently inviting expressions of interest in contributing case studies and more general reflections:

Research Resilience

Panel discussion and networking: Wednesday 21 April 2021, 2-4pm (online)

CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Photo of researcher at The National Archives, following social distancing measures
© The National Archives

The circumstances of 2020-1 have exacerbated pre-existing challenges across our sectors, particularly in terms of access to archive and library materials. Yet it’s also shown us innovation, resilience, and the importance of mutual learning by archivists and historians alike.

History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are inviting reflections on the ways archivists and historians have adapted research projects and practices as a result of closures and social distancing. The aim is to explore how changes made for COVID-19 can and should be used to address longstanding issues of accessibility and equity, and to provide practical guidance for those needing to reframe or rethink their research. We want to hear about your personal experiences, as well as creative solutions and thoughts on how to make them sustainable.

We plan to compile a series of blog posts and videos of experiences to help us and our communities explore and build on what we have learned about a blended approach to research and collections access. These will be shared online in advance of a Research Resilience event, in which we will come together to discuss, network, and learn from each other.

We are inviting expressions of interest in writing a short blog post or video on your experiences of having to rethink research and/or access to collections. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • approaches to reframing research projects, whether as a result of COVID-19, or because of caring responsibilities, disability, or structural barriers
  • practical and sustainable ways of making archive and/or library materials more accessible
  • ideas for breaking down barriers between researchers and archivists

No need to be an expert, just able to capture your experience and try to join us at the event itself for questions and discussion.

Send a brief (c.100 words) overview of the experience you’d like to share to historyuk2020@gmail.com by 5pm on Friday 29 January. If this deadline is too soon, let us know – we can be flexible.

Please note that we may have to review the timing of the event if pandemic measures seem likely to compromise attendance levels or our ability to run it effectively.