College of DuPage Eliminates Virtual Learning Barriers for Students Requiring Support Services

By: Angela Mennecke

COD American Sign Language Interpreters having a staff meeting on Zoom

Responding to the significant changes in class format in the wake of COVID-19, College of DuPage’s Center for Access and Accommodations put strategies in place to deliver accommodations for online instruction, including testing, closed captioning, use of assistive technologies, audio recordings, interpreting and scribing.

During the spring term, more than 1,500 students requested support services, and this fall more than 2,000 students requested accommodations. With the increase in students needing assistance due to virtual learning, COD Manager of Access and Accommodations Samantha Salvato said her team has pivoted quickly to offer extra support to students in need. 

“My team was thrown into a new work environment, but we rolled up our sleeves and did what it took for students to have complete access to their class content,” she said. “We ordered new equipment, met through Zoom to talk through issues and were there for each other around the clock. And with fall semester underway, we made an effort to reach out to each student who requested our services and their instructors to work together to troubleshoot any potential issues that may arise.”

For hearing-impaired students, live teaching formats over the internet can be difficult for students if not done correctly, Salvato said. COD has provided each of these students with American Sign Language interpreters with real-time captioning for their classes.

Led by the efforts of COD Accommodations Specialist Sheryl Ebersold, COD’s 13 interpreters worked together to prepare for live interpreting in their virtual workspaces at home. Industry standards call for high-speed internet, a private room, a black backdrop, an external microphone, a camera and special software.

“In addition to interpreting live classes, we are using technologies where interpreters can video record themselves and then insert themselves into a pre-recorded video,” Ebersold said. “This has allowed us to make sure that deaf and hard-of-hearing students are able to receive the same assistance they would have received on campus.”

Since classes moved to an online format, Access and Accommodations staff members have captioned more than 500 videos.

“All of our interpreters taught themselves how to caption through numerous training sessions and got themselves up to speed without missing a beat,” Ebersold said. “Auto-captioning, such as what is provided as a default for the Zoom, WebEx and Google Hangout conferencing platforms, is only 85 percent correct at best. And if the professor has a poor connection or a poor microphone, the auto-captioning accuracy decreases. Our aim is 99 percent accuracy, so that means we do it ourselves.”

For students who need a live reader or scribe for exams, staff members are able to assist students via Zoom, through audio recordings or in-person with special permissions.

“We have had to get inventive and create different processes since students aren’t on campus,” Salvato said. “We are also always exploring new ways that connect students to our department since they can’t stop by our physical office. We will not let any student slip through the crack.”

Salvato has been reaching out to other area colleges to network and collaborate on new ways to assist students. Through bi-weekly meetings, Illinois college leaders in access and accommodation departments bounce ideas off one another and brainstorm new ways to make it easier for students with disabilities in the virtual realm. 

“Prior to COVID, we would face obstacles, but this has been a challenge of a completely different nature,” Salvato said. “This situation has taught me how adaptable my department is. We have added so many tools to our tool belt in such a short amount of time. At the end of the day, we are here to serve our students and will do anything we can to make their college experience seamless in whatever environment they find themselves.”

And with an increase in mental health disorders during the pandemic, Salvato emphasized that students don’t have to lose out on a grade or an entire semester over something uncontrollable.

“Students can contact our office for temporary accommodations if they get sick, have a medical emergency or are battling a mental illness and can’t finish coursework,” she said. “We are here to help. We don’t want to miss any students just because they don’t know we are here.”

Learn more about COD’s Center for Access and Accommodations