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Reading the signs

Pete Roythorne discovers how a digital camera in the hands of teaching assistant Roy Schumann transformed learning in West Cheshire college

This story starts about eight years ago when Roy Schumann was unemployed.

Roy's wife persuaded him to go to college to do a signing evening class with her. A month later and Roy's wife had left the class, eight years later Roy is a level 3 signer and working 10 hours per week - officially - in the deaf awareness department at West Cheshire college, where he himself learned to sign.

Roy joined the department about two years ago when it reached the point in his studies that he needed to work more with deaf people. Around the same time, the department was awarded a grant by the Learning and Skills Council - it was this that paid for Roy to join. Since then the department has gone from around 200 students to 700 this year.

"Initially, Eddie (Clarke the course, and Roy's own tutor) wanted me to help use ICT as a link between technology and teaching in the classroom," Roy explains. "The plan was to introduce software to back Eddie up and to help develop vocabulary skills."

Roy's role has now become an integral part of the course. The first thing he did was to check out what software was available, and he wasn't that impressed. "There are some very expensive DVDs, but the quality of the video footage wasn't all that clear," he recalls.

So the department decided to do things themselves. Eddie's wife had bought him a digital camera which he gave to Roy. "When I finally got it working, I went online and got a converter to get the video footage into PowerPoint, but the quality on the video still wasn't quite right," explains Roy. "So I bought my own camera, a Sony DSC-P72. This is what I now use for all my stills and video work."

From having no previous ICT experience, Roy has now produced a range of high-quality PowerPoint presentations which support the curriculum and are divided into the same categories as the classes. One particularly useful example is Finger Spelling. Here all the letters of the alphabet and their hand shapes are depicted round the outside of the screen, at the top of the screen is a word and in the centre is a video clip of a member of staff signing the word.

Roy uses the presentations to back up the work Eddie is doing in the class.

While Eddie is teaching, the presentations will be running in the background displaying the words he is teaching on the interactive whiteboard. This process means Eddie doesn't have to repeat himself as much and the students are able to focus clearly on what the hands are doing.

"Another advantage of creating our own support material is that we use our own staff, so the students see friendly faces on screen," says Roy. "This also reduces the problems associated with local dialect. We also use the students in the presentations, which makes it more exciting for them."

The resources are also available over the college's intranet so students can access them out of class to practice or to catch up if they miss a lesson. They can also be accessed remotely from outside the college.

With 2,000 words in the level 2 curriculum, where does Roy find the time to compile all this? Interestingly, all staff have stories about being grabbed by Roy and pulled into classrooms during breaks, suddenly finding themselves shoved in front of a camera, signing various words.

As for the editing, compiling and designing, this is all done by Roy in the small hours at home... much to the annoyance of Mrs Schumann. "I do the work at home because it takes me half the time," says Roy. "The computers at college are just too slow. Also, my wife often gets called in to act as cameraman for footage. Ideally, we could do with a weekend a month to get together round someone's house to do all the filming."

The award is good news for Roy. "I've been told it will be coming to me," he explains. "So I'm going to buy a digital video camera. We're planning to make DVDs of sign grammar and put it in the college library so that students can access it at any time. In the long run, we'd like to make it commercially available."

It doesn't stop there, either. Roy's next plan is to build a website, using Serif's free web-page builder, so he can support the course from home.


* Keep it simple.

"Don't go for the Gucci software," explains Roy. "You can get free software that does exactly what you need to do, and probably a lot quicker. Often going for the free software from people like Serif is the best bet."

* Group activities. Working in groups helps students to learn to develop their signing abilities and get used to other people's inflections and accents.

* Have a PowerPoint presentation on in the background mirroring what you are teaching. The ability to zoom in and display what is being taught on the big screen speeds up the learning process dramatically.

* Humour. Always add a bit of humour into things. It helps the learning.

* Don't let the students see themselves being videoed. "I have the camera plugged into a TV set at the back of the class, but I make sure this is turned round so that they can't see themselves. As video evidence is such an integral part of the NVQ syllabus, this happens a lot.



Lots of free trial downloads.


Plenty of resources here.


Huge amounts of information.


Website for Computer Shopper, which Roy has found to be the most easily accessible computer magazine.

* Finally, go to your preferred search engine and type in "Free software" KEY TECHNOLOGIES

* Digital camera There are a vast range of camera options, but Roy's favoured Sony DSC-P72 (from around pound;160) is a good bet. Video capability is one of the key features to look for.

* ACDSee Excellent package for editing images and video

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