Talya Guncer, Yuchen Deng, Ketong Wang, Shaonan Li
This piece of work was submitted as a student essay for the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education at the University of Manchester
In December 2019, a novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was discovered in a seafood market in Wuhan (Adedoyin and Soykan, 2020). Due to the virus’s highly transmissible characteristics, the government chose to establish work and study from home (Sitti Maryam, 2020). This initiative created a teaching environment that had never been possible before (Serhan, 2020). Although the term online learning was introduced as early as 1995 (Vera, 2020), in the past, it was only one of the ways students learned, not the only way. Therefore, it is a completely new challenge for students. In this challenge, there are two special groups of students who need extra attention: the visually impaired and the hearing impaired. According to WHO statistics, at least 2.2 billion people worldwide currently suffer from near or distance vision impairment (WHO, 2021) and more than 1.5 billion people suffer from hearing loss (nearly 20% of the global population) (WHO, 2022). These students have a more difficult transition from face-to-face to online instruction than the general population, as they encounter more barriers (Qamar et al., 2021, Sutton, 2020). For them, online teaching not only meant adapting to different teaching methods and teaching environments but also taking a lot of time to get familiar with some online learning software. Although much online learning software at the time was highly regarded, such as Google Meet, WhatsApp, Teams, etc., most of them were not designed to meet the needs of students with disabilities (Nganji, 2012).
The good news is that due to the huge demand for online learning in the current environment (Dolamore, 2021), and with the number of students with disabilities increasing (Nganji, 2012), online learning software continues to be developed with updated features that benefit students with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments and hearing impairments. The most noteworthy of these is Zoom, as it has been the most popular teleconferencing technology in recent years (Anderson, 2021) and is also considered to be the easiest to access. In a survey of accessibility testing companies, 92% of people ranked Zoom as their preferred tool (Vera, 2020). Following a series of upgrades, Zoom can now ensure that its products are operable and perceptible to users with visual impairments. For example, their products can already support common screen readers such as NVDA, JAW, VoiceOver, etc.(Anderson, 2021). Not only that but Zoom also offers the definition of subtitle font sizes, which can support larger font settings and other features (Anderson, 2021). Similarly, to ensure a richer experience for the hearing impaired, Zoom has been updated with features such as automatic subtitle generation and the ability to fix or focus the interpreter’s video, in the hope of providing a richer communication experience for the user (Larkin, 2021).
However, even though zoom has been upgraded in many ways, it is still difficult to meet all the needs of the visually impaired and hearing impaired. For example, for the visually impaired, many documents, especially images, are still unreadable (Khalid and Malik, 2021); for the hearing impaired, even with the updated live captioning feature, these transcripts often have a high error rate when generating terms and often require secondary checking by the teachers (Aljedaani et al., 2021). This feedback suggests that Zoom still has some shortcomings that need to be improved.
For the following four reasons, this article will focus on the advantages and disadvantages of using Zoom for the visually impaired and hearing impaired. Firstly, Zoom is representative because currently, it is the most popular online learning software for people with disabilities(Vera, 2020). Secondly, as online teaching has become the norm, it is important for teachers to understand students’ feedback about using online teaching software, especially the challenges they encounter so that they can provide timely assistance. Thirdly, for the software designers, direct feedback from people with disabilities can help to further improve the relevant features of the software. Finally, from the literature collected, there are few papers that address both ‘Zoom’ and ‘disabled students’ (or visual/hearing impairment). Given the current number of people with visual and hearing impairments worldwide (WHO, 2021), it is also important to understand their use and researchers should focus on related topics.
Visual Impairments: According to Paciello (2000), visual impairment is the most commonly stated disability when it comes to web accessibility. When creating instructional websites, designers of online learning resources usually address three categories of visual impairments: total blindness, low vision, and colour blindness (Bohman, 2003).
Hearing Impairments: The types and severity of hearing impairment limitations vary (Crow, 2008). It can be mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe or profound, and can affect one or both ears (WHO, 2022). People who have a hearing impairment may have a diminished ability to hear certain frequencies, or they may have difficulty hearing at all frequency levels (Crow, 2008).
Advantages of Zoom
One of the basic requirements of accessibility is the compatibility and availability of a tool on all operating systems and devices to prevent exclusion of individuals (Wonesky, 2020). Zoom supports more operating systems such as Android, Chrome OS, and Blackberry as well as Windows, Mac OS and Linux compared to Teams and Skype (Correia, Liu & Xu, 2020). Wonesky (2020) states that Zoom is also available for smartphones and tablets, and in circumstances where the app cannot be installed, users have the option to join the meeting via a web browser. Although Zoom has a web version, it can also be downloaded and locally installed as a plug-in or a desktop app, which is overall more accessible for screen reader users compared to the web version (Leporini, Buzzi & Hersh, 2021).
Compliance with Standards
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 determines how web content can be made more accessible to disabled people. The top four principles which create the foundation for Web Accessibility are: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The Section 508 Standards, part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, make sure that people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities can access hardware and software tools. EN 301 549, which is a European standard for digital accessibility, defines prerequisites for ICT to be accessible for disabled individuals.
Zoom reports that its applications and web pages comply with WCAG 2.1 AA, the revised Section 508 standards and the EN 301 549 Accessibility requirements with a few exceptions. Leporini et al. (2021) add that Zoom provides VPATS, which can be downloaded for the different versions: Zoom Client App for Windows and macOS, Zoom Mobile App (for iOS and Android), Zoom Rooms and Controller, Zoom Plug-ins for Outlook for macOS and Windows, Web Pages, and Extensions) despite some exceptions still present.
In a study carried out by Acosta-Vargas, Guaña-Moya, Acosta-Vargas, Villegas-Ch & Salvador-Ullauri (2021), the six most popular video conferencing platforms were chosen to assess compliance with accessibility criteria based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and 2.2 principles. Table 1 shows that Zoom was one of the three platforms that complied with WCAG 2.1 and 2.2 the highest with the only accessibility barrier it did not pass being “images as sharp as possible”.
Table 2 – (a) accessibility barriers according to WCAG 2.1 and 2.2 and (b) evaluation of videoconferencing tools for compliance with WCAG guidelines from Acosta-Vargas et al. Study (2021)
Zoom can be used for free, but there are some limitations. The free version of Zoom allows for limitless one-on-one meetings, which have a time limit of 30 hours as well as 40-minute group meetings with up to 100 participants. However, after 40 minutes, participants are forced to leave the group meeting. In their study analyzing four commonly used video platforms: Teams, WhatsApp, Skype and Zoom, Correia et al. (2020) conclude that Zoom stands out from the other systems because of its relatively greater cost-to-performance ratio. They express that Zoom is appropriate for small and medium-sized institutions and a cheaper alternative if users only need to meet for less than or equal to 40 minutes.
Advantages For Students With Visual Impairments
Screen Reader Support
The American Foundation for the Blind (2020) describe screen readers as software programmes that use a speech synthesizer or braille display to read aloud text shown on a computer screen to blind or visually impaired users, who give commands to the speech synthesizer or braille display by hitting different combinations of keys on the keyboard to tell it what to say and to talk automatically when the computer screen changes.
Zoom claims that its products are operable and perceivable for those who are visually impaired and that its products support commonly used screen readers like NVDA, JAWS, VoiceOver, and Android. According to Pomarolli (2021), Zoom is highly accessible to those with visual impairments as it can completely interact with any screen reader. In a study analyzing the accessibility and usability of screen readers and keyboards on three popular video platforms: Zoom, Teams and Meet, Leporini et al. (2021) conclude that Zoom is the most accessible tool via a keyboard and a screen reader. Table 2 shows that in the evaluation, the most essential functions on Zoom except one (accessing shared content) were all easily accessed via a screen reader. In fact, they add that when trying to get information about other participants in the meeting, Zoom presents the most complete and clearest information with all data given in the correct sequence.
Table 2 – supported accessibility features via a screen reader and keyboard on Zoom from Leporini et al. study (2021)
According to Vera (2020), with most video platforms, unnecessary preference dialogs appear on the screen when joining a meeting, which can prevent those who are visually impaired and using a screen reader from attending. Zoom, however, provides a handy feature that allows participants to join a meeting immediately by clicking on an email link. This goes to show that Zoom was designed with screen reader users in mind.
Another useful aspect of Zoom is that a user’s screen reader can be controlled with the “remote control feature”, which can be carried out by the host enabling “share computer audio” so that the screen reader’s speech output can be heard on the guest computer. When the guest gains remote control, the host computer saves the common screen reader keystrokes.
Hot Keys & Shortcuts
Shortcuts are significant for blind users as they make it easier to interact with the screen reader and keyboard. Shortcuts that allow access to tool functions can be especially useful and prevent users from trying to hear and understand speakers and screen reader output at the same time, which significantly reduces cognitive load (Leporini et al., 2021)
Zoom supports shortcuts that can be customized to manage workflows and navigate settings (Pomarolli, 2021). This is especially useful for those who do not use a mouse and frequently depend on keyboard shortcuts and hotkeys. Hogle (2020) states that Zoom has many shortcuts, including “global” shortcuts, which continue to function on Zoom even if there is another program in focus.
In Leporini et al. ‘s (2021) study, Zoom was deemed the most accessible tool out of all three video platforms because it offered countless shortcuts. In fact, Zoom was the only one that provided a shortcut to the chat area and for hand raising and lowering. Users can access the list of all available shortcuts on Zoom’s official website.
Advantages for Students with Hearing Impairments
Captioning & Subtitles
Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) users can access verbal information using text-based captions, which are a visual aid that supports DHH students’ learning and assists them in overcoming the linguistic problems they have in class. (Yoon & Kim, 2011). Kim & Jeong suggest that DHH students’ content and reading comprehension as well as their learning capacity have all been shown to improve when using multimedia videos with captions. (Y. Kim & Jeong, 2006, as cited in Yoon & Kim, 2011). Real-time speech-to-text conversion is a frequent support function provided to students in higher education institutions (Lang, 2002), and speech-to-text services, as opposed to traditional accommodations such as sign language interpreters or note takers, allow DHH students to engage more effectively in higher education environments (M. Stinson, McKee, & Elliot, 2000, as cited in Alsalamah, 2020).
Zoom supports captioning services for its live meetings in several different ways. Manual captioning can be provided by the host or another meeting attendee assigned by the host, an integrated third-party closed captioning provider, or Zoom’s live transcription feature can provide automatic captioning through closed caption settings. Zoom’s live captioning is relatively new, so it only provides real-time captioning in the English language, but it is available for free meetings and webinars, which makes it a feasible option for those who cannot afford third-party captioning services. Closed captioning can be activated under Advanced Meeting Settings, where according to Hogle (2020) captions from the meeting can be saved so that there can be a written record. It’s also possible to adjust the font size of the captions under Accessibility Settings, which could be useful for users with low vision.
Spotlight & Pinning
When communicating with others face-to-face, we rely heavily on facial expressions and body language to understand the speaker’s intended message. This is the same for deaf individuals. Yet, in online meetings with DHH, there will always be an interpreter present whether this meeting is a one-on-one or a larger group meeting, and because the software draws attention to the interpreter by default, they become the main focus on the screen, which can be challenging for the hearing individual as the speaker’s message loses it context. This is because there are no clues from the speaker’s body language nor changes in their tone of voice. This specific highlight on the interpreter also ends up giving the deaf individual a lower screen priority (Anderson, 2021)
Zoom’s latest accessibility features, however, have made it easier for deaf and hard of hearing individuals to use this video conferencing tool (Vincent, 2020) and for sign language interpreters as well as speakers to remain visible on the screen at the same time (Lekach, 2020). With the spotlight feature, which is exclusive to hosts, up to 9 participants can be selected as the primary active speaker, and the attendees will only see these 9 participants, so the host could spotlight the interpreter, who would be in view for the whole meeting even if someone else is speaking. As for the pinning feature, which is slightly different, users can customize their view by pinning any participant they wish to prioritize. These new features enable the users to focus on the interpreter as well as the active speaker (Vogler, McKee, Moreland, Roth & Ruffin, 2020), resulting in a better understanding of the speaker’s message as there are visible visual cues.
Vogler et al. (2020) also add that in the case of interpretation into more than one sign language, participants could pin the video that is necessary for them depending on the language they use. This can be a useful feature for improving effective communication for a wide range of people attending the webinar, each with their own particular communication requirements.
Disadvantages of Zoom
According to Nachman and Wilke (2021), “During the 2011–12 academic year, 12.7% of first-time postsecondary students in 2-year colleges identified as having a disability, compared to 10.7% at 4-year institutions. And enrollment of disabled students in postsecondary education is likely to continue to increase based on trends from the past decade”. Because of the lack of functions to accept information for disabled student, such as the hard of hearing or the visually impaired, their study strategies are limited, especially in distance online learning. Pearson et al.(2019) considered that online and blended learning approaches can offer flexibility for students and bring opportunities to develop more inclusive features and activities. However, they can also lead to unforeseen and unquantified barriers, resulting in requests for adjustments to learning and teaching. This can have a detrimental effect on students’ study experiences. On the other hand, Wiederhold (2020) argue that “with many of us shifting our work and social lives online due to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and shelter-at-home orders, the use of videoconferencing programs has increased exponentially. For example, while only 10 million people attended meetings on Zoom at the end of 2019 before coronavirus was widespread, by April 2020 usage had exploded to 300 million. Technology such as Zoom has made it possible to continue some semblance of business as usual during quarantine, allowing people to move their lives online while maintaining physical distance in order to stop the spread of the virus”. For students with disabilities, changing from face-to-face learning to online learning is a very challenging attempt. Paramasivam et al. (2022) mentioned in the article that due to COVID-19, they have to invest energy in learning and familiarize themselves with new online conference platforms in a very short time. As a result, students suffer from mental stress and have to deal with emotional challenges. Although during COVID-19, Zoom meetings were designed and developed for users with disabilities, such as the support for screen readers for blind people and auto-generated captions for deaf users, the platform still has some disadvantages, which adversely affect the learning of special groups. Therefore, there are some shortcomings of this platform for disabled students, rather than efficient as general learner.
Disadvantages for Students with Hearing Impairments
Apart from the challenges for visually impaired students, the biggest trouble when using Zoom for the hard of hearing is the interaction, rather than learning how to adapt the platform. Zoom claims that they have added an auto-generated captions function to help disabled people use the platform more conveniently. However, for one thing, the main way to communicate and learn for hearing impaired students is to use sign languages rather than speaking; for another, Gernsbacher (2015) argue that “captions generated via automated speech recognition are not yet without interfering error”, so this may make it difficult for students to understand what the teacher says or implies. In Stack Whitney and Whitney`s (2021) paper, the most important issue around deaf people is avoiding language deprivation. It means that when the deaf communicate with others, they use sign languages almost all the time. When deaf students study by using Zoom, they cannot use sign languages to interact with their classmates. The relevant research shows that it may not be beneficial for language development and may impact neurological development. That is the main drawback of Zoom meetings. Although with the support of screen and camera, users see sign languages. Mohammed (2021) analyzed the problems of body language teaching using Zoom and other platforms in his article in more detail. Firstly, if the camera frame rate is too low or the graphics quality is poor, sign languages and fingerspelling become unstable and blurry. Also, the speaker has to pay attention to whether he or she stays within the camera range to prevent the learner from missing some content. Due to the lack of real sense of space in Zoom meetings, teachers’ ability to use sign languages and demonstrate activities in real space is greatly reduced, which decreases the learning efficiency of deaf students. Moreover, because of some reasons, there are lots of students who only study with a smartphone, this makes it especially difficult to get the requisite visual input on a small screen. In addition, the unstable Internet connection quality caused by price or geographical location will also make lecture development very difficult.
From December 2019 to the present, the emergence of the new coronavirus COVID-19 has affected people’s lifestyles and behaviours (Dimple&Vivek, 2021). To contain the spread of the new coronavirus and keep social distance, businesses, sporting events and schools worldwide have been temporarily closed, making online learning one of the key ways to teach during COVID-19 (Olasile&Emrah,2020). Due to the widespread use of online learning modalities as a result of COVID-19, the increasing number of students with disabilities has reminded educators, technology developers and related industries not to overlook this population and increase their attention to it (Nganji, 2012). This paper, therefore, focuses on online learning for visually impaired and hearing impaired students and analyses the advantages and disadvantages of using Zoom for this group.
On the one hand, this paper discusses the advantages of using the Zoom platform in terms of platform independence, compliance and cost, and also discusses the advantages of Zoom over other applications in relation to the different needs of hearing and visually impaired people. The independence of the platform allows students to access Zoom in a variety of ways, making it easier for them to use Zoom for learning. In addition, Zoom complies with WCAG 2.1 and 2.2 standards compared to applications such as Teams and Webex, except that the images are as clear as possible. This confirms that Zoom has outstanding advantages for students with disabilities. In terms of cost of use, Zoom is also more cost-effective than other applications. For visually impaired students, research has shown that most of Zoom’s features can be used via screen readers, and that hotkeys and shortcuts provide shortcuts in access for the visually impaired. And the real-time captioning feature provides good support and security for students with hearing impairments. The fact that the sign language interpreter and the speaker remain visible on the screen at the same time (Lekach , 2020) is also one of the benefits that facilitates learning for students with hearing impairments. On the other hand, this paper also raises the limitations of using the Zoom app for students with disabilities. For example, visually impaired students need to spend more time learning how to use the system, and hearing impaired students may have some difficulty understanding subtitles. At times, they are unable to use sign language to communicate with others. The instability of the internet also adds to the difficulties of online learning for students with disabilities.
In the same way that this paper examines some of the advantages of Zoom for students with disabilities who can use screen readers, Cooper (2003) also mentions that some people with disabilities use means other than traditional monitors, keyboards and mice to meet their needs and interact with computers. This is often referred to as ‘assistive technology’. In 2016, Cooper proposed allowing users to customise ways to make online learning more accessible to students with disabilities, Cooper (2016) found that different people have different optimal readable configurations and that online content can be made more readable if they can choose specific font styles and sizes and use different background and foreground colours. At the same time, Cooper（2016）proposes to allow access to all functions via the keyboard only. This includes blind people and people with some physical disabilities who cannot use a mouse. By ensuring that the software can be fully used without a mouse, the ease of online learning for this group of people can be improved.
This paper analyses the advantages and disadvantages of using Zoom for students with disabilities in different ways, also classifying students with disabilities as visually impaired or hearing impaired. Nevertheless, there are some limitations in this paper. For example, the search engines Google, Google Scholar and Google Book do not show any papers on the use of Zoom by students with disabilities in whole or in part, and there is a lack of quantitative research data. In addition, we were unable to find out the real experiences of students with disabilities using Zoom through specific surveys such as interviews, which suggests that the study has ignored the difficulties and challenges encountered by the user group in using Zoom. As a result, the research in this paper has been limited to theoretical aspects and no practical feedback on usage.
In future research, the scope of the study could be expanded. Students with disabilities are not only limited to the visually impaired and hearing impaired. Online learning for students with disabilities could also be analysed by focusing on a particular subject of study. For example, subjects that require experimentation, or subjects that have to do with sports. Likewise, students at different grade levels have different needs for online learning. How can the quality of online learning for students with disabilities be improved from the educator’s perspective? The paper suggests that future research questions could be how can secondary school students with disabilities increase their participation in online learning in physical education courses? How can teachers better use media applications to meet the needs of students with disabilities?
From 1995 (Vera, 2020), when the term online learning was introduced, to today, when the global epidemic of new crowns has not yet ceased. Online learning has become one of the key modes of education and teaching. While enjoying and applying the fruits of Internet development, the public cannot ignore the dilemmas and challenges faced by the disabled population. Although it is clear from the research that Zoom offers better assistance to people with disabilities than other applications, this paper presents a number of advantages of Zoom being accessible to students with disabilities. There are still issues that need to be addressed in future technological advances. As the number of students with disabilities continues to increase (Nganji, 2012), the community should raise awareness of this group. It is clear that current research is limited and that Zoom alone cannot fully meet the needs of this group. In the debate about online learning, the topic of how to better engage students with disabilities has become unmissable. This calls for educators to pay more attention to this group of students, while opening up wider research and studies. Further improving access to learning for people with disabilities requires social awareness, technological advancements and educators to think about teaching and learning.
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