Video sign language enables students to have more meaningful conversations with each other


Video sign language enables students to have more meaningful conversations with each other – with huge benefits for wellbeing and potentially for learning.

In 2020 university students relied more than ever on Wi-Fi connection and experienced a loss of personal connection with family at home, friends, peers and tutors.

According to the results of a survey study published in JAMA Network Open, university students who experienced lockdowns due to COVID-19 exhibited a high prevalence of mental health issues. As Lockdown 3.0 forces students back to their halls or homes, this is a major concern. Zoom meetings may be their only form of face-to-face interaction and they need to work better.

To help address this, we have been piloting the use of Video Sign Language (VSL), a set of hand gestures used alongside the spoken word, with groups of students. The gestures really work. They enable a much closer emotional connection and bring flow to a conversation. Often, they can help to lighten the mood making you smile as you explore a new way of interactive communication.

There are 25 signs in total (all free to learn and use – see, but with our pilot groups we have focused on just five that help create an emotional connection:

1. I connect with what you have said because I have had a similar experience
2. I feel for you
3. Goodbye friend, I connect with you
4. I’d like to offer a different point of view
5. Tell me more, go on

The results have been powerful and immediate. Following a group meeting in January 2021 Nico Upton, a recent graduate from Oxford Brookes University said:

“Using the signs made understanding one another easier, the flow of the conversation was kept so there was less time to rethink what you were saying. I felt it was a more open conversation, as I was being listened to, but others could interject without taking me out of my rhythm. As we listened to each other’s stories we could visually connect with each other, showing we had felt the same way. This had a powerful effect on the dynamic of the conversation and how I felt afterwards.”

Paul Hills, creator of VSL, has this to say:   “We know VSL works with business teams, but actually the need for this in education is even greater. All students could be using this technique now, in their friendship groups, to help with wellbeing. But it should also be used in seminars, to improve learning’

The point about seminars is well made. We know from our research with both students and lecturers that online seminars are achieving poor outcomes in terms of engagement and are therefore failing to be good learning environments – 45 percent of students say they are not satisfied that their education is of a good standard or quality during COVID-19, according to a @NUSuk (National Union of Students) survey of nearly 4,200 students.

One student we interviewed, a Warwick University 2nd year, summarized it as follows:  ‘For an arts degree where much of your learning is in the discussion it is really bad when six out of the eight people in the seminar don’t put their videos on and also don’t contribute. In one seminar, representative of many, the lecturer really struggled with online. She was inexperienced with technology and the students were having to teach her. I probably should have said something to the ones who didn’t have their videos on, but I didn’t know them. The lecturer asked everyone at the beginning to put their cameras on, but they had excuses like, ‘my camera isn’t working.’ One person was in bed, so they didn’t want to. There has never been a discussion around what is acceptable to do or not do. ‘

This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Feedback from Stanford University students in California, reported in the Stanford Daily, shows similar views:

‘I’m worried that I’ll be placed with instructors who ignore the humanistic parts of learning
What is it that we truly pay for? Textbooks, lectures and problem-sets — or relationships, experiences and engagement? I argue for the latter, which has almost been eliminated in an online setting.’

Lecturers are also unhappy with the situation. A report published by the University of Oslo states major challenges faced by lecturers includes limited contact and pressures over the psychological health of students. Some lecturers are attempting to rectify this, Professor Elizabeth Stone of Fordham university, in her article published in Inside Higher Ed on August 19th, 2020 has found she needs to explicitly ask students to consider talking in video classes more than they might as “without their active participation, the class would fall flat”. This concurs with our findings. It is all too easy to switch off in a video call but using VSL encourages more organic participation. However, some lecturers we have interviewed seem reluctant to try out new things, fearing their students would simply refuse. The University of Oslo found that pedagogical insecurity is one of the major challenges faced by lecturers at this time. A typical response from a lecturer was:

“The students aren’t interested. They won’t even put their videos on. You won’t get them to use signs.”

But is this really true? Our experience is that, when properly introduced, new techniques like Video Sign language are welcomed and quickly adopted – maybe the more innovative universities and lecturers will lead the way. We want to hear from more lecturers that are brave enough to try out new approaches and be part of our pilot program.

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