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Aug 13, 2021

Modality and morality or Do not go back to normal if it was abnormal

There we go again. I felt smug about figuring out a perfect solution, only to realize it does not work in real life. In ASL, facial expressions are an essential part of the language. Wearing a mask makes it very difficult to communicate. Face shields tend to fog up and they have a glare problems. I thought we would keep ASL interpreters on Zoom, and project the Zoom onto the large screen for meetings – and pipe any presentation through the same Zoom window. All participants, on Zoom and in the room would see the same thing, and the interpreter would not have to wear a mask. So, Binod, Michele, Leah and I went in to test the hypothesis. We tried our most advanced media studio room.

Here is how it went:
- What happens when a Deaf person from the audience wants to speak at a meeting? I need to see them up close, - says Michele, our interpreter.
- They will sign into a special laptop station with a camera. For equity, all speakers will have to come up to that station to speak.
- That’s a lot of commotion for everyone to come up to the speaking station, even to ask a quick question.
- OK, what if everyone will have a laptop and be logged into Zoom at the same time?
- Multiple Zoom sessions will create audio feedback, bunch of echoes – we learned that last year.
- OK, they will all be muted, and the room mics will pick up their speech.
- I imagine bunch of people in the room, each staring at and speaking/signing into their laptops… Why did they come f2f to begin with?
- [Silence]

This is just a small part of that testing exercise. At some point, we realized that someone had to be essentially a camera operator, and make sure the right picture is on screen and in Zoom. We have to develop a process where people on Zoom would feel as included in the conversation as people in the room – same opportunity to speak, same level of empowerment to affect the outcome of the meeting. In other words, every little problem has a solution. However, in aggregate, they are too much to overcome. Every little thing can go wrong. And it is too much to handle for whoever facilitates those meetings. Since I lead the College meetings, it would be me. I am not tech-shy at all, but that would be too much even for me.

Do not always listen to techno-optimists. Sometimes the technology is simply not there. The techies are trained to think how to solve problems. It is very difficult for them to say “sorry, we cannot solve this problem yet.” They will keep thinking about yet another camera, another powerful microphone, another trick to match displays, etc. Interestingly, the ed tech industry have been working on the problem of split classrooms for decades, so it is very hard for them to admit the problem has not been yet solved. It may be one day, like in Sci-Fi movies, where you are talking to a hologram, and are not aware this is not an actual human being. But we are very far from that.

Here is a really profound question for you. Why do we want to get back to f2f “normal” meetings? Because we enjoy the full spectrum of sensory experiences - an occasional short chat, a glimpse of other people, an aside joke, the body language, the energy of the room. But many of those things are inaccessible to Deaf and hard of hearing, to people with limited vision, with a difficulty processing facial expressions, not fluent in the working language, etc. What is fun for an able-bodied person is exactly the thing that excludes others.

Zoom is also incredibly limiting, but it is limiting to everyone in about the same way. At least we figured out how to make the interpreter visible. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the auto-captioning is actually OK: not as good as the best human captioner, but better than a terrible one. We learned that zoom-based meeting are not as much fun, but they do the job – things get discussed, and decisions made. Now, tell me, on balance, would you trade fun for most for more inclusion for all?

Moreover, the split modality will create a new underclass of people who cannot come. The very nature of the duel (split) modality puts the two groups of participants in two very different positions. It is impossible to provide equal opportunity and equal experience for both. By the way the few faculty that tried to teach the split classroom (we call it HyFlex here) all hated it. It requires too much effort from the instructor and takes attention away from teaching. Add accommodation for disability to this already very difficult task, and this is a recipe for disaster.

Now, when we go back completely back to normal, and not driving to a meeting will be indeed a preference, then we do not owe that much to people who chose to stay home. We can provide marginal participation opportunity for them, as a courtesy. If you want full participation – come here. But we are not in that world yet. People who do not come may have medical concerns for themselves, and their families. It looks like Zoom meetings are here to stay for some time. And even then, why go back to normal that has been exclusionary? How do we redefine the normal, so it works for more people? It may be the case that Zoom meetings are here to stay for a long time.

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