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An optimal learning environment - a direction set by the Deaf Education Review

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The Department’s review of deaf education highlighted the importance of optimal acoustic environments in classrooms.  Teaching and learning styles have become increasingly interactive. Children now commonly work in small groups to complete projects and learning assignments. For students with a hearing loss this can present challenges.    
 
The use of hearing aids, cochlear implants and personal FM systems are well recognised as maximising benefits for students with a hearing loss, however other technologies such as soundfield systems, some of which are compatible with FM systems, are becoming more accessible and are frequently incorporated into learning environments.
 
Soundfield technology operates in classrooms in a similar way to a public address system, evenly distributing sound around the room – making the teachers voice easier to hear. The use of these systems has been shown to reflect improvement in academic outcomes for children with normal hearing (Heeney, 2007; Rosenberg 2005), however little is known about the benefits for students with a hearing impairment.
 
Following the Deaf Education Review findings in May 2012, VDEI initiated a grants program for the implementation of portable sound field technology in classrooms with students with hearing loss in mainstream classrooms. Sixty-seven soundfield systems in 25 schools were supplied and used and the project was evaluated by The University of Melbourne. This project emphasised the need to focus on maximising optimal acoustic conditions in an inclusive and beneficial way.
 
The following benefits were analysed:
 
1.     Hearing the teacher: both primary and secondary students with a hearing loss reported significant benefits in being able to hear their teacher better in inclusive classroom settings. Most students used the soundfield system in conjunction with their hearing aid and personal FM system, although some secondary students preferred not to use their personal FMs prior to, and during, the project.
 
2.     Hearing other students: most of the soundfield systems were purchased in conjunction with compatible hand-held microphones, which can be passed from student to student in peer learning activities. The evaluation showed that primary and secondary students were able to hear their peers significantly better in group situations through the use of this technology, reflecting an increased and more productive inclusive learning environment. Some teachers reported that this was the most beneficial aspect of the soundfield system, having a profound effect on the inclusion of students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
 
3.     The classroom environment: The evaluation indicated that the classroom acoustic environment was enhanced as noise levels in classrooms were reduced and this improved ability of all students to hear, resulting in a more focused learning environment. Teachers found it easier to gain students’ attention and were able to use a softer voice consistently. The ability of all students to hear better, and the use of the microphones led to reduced noise levels in classrooms, less unproductive talking and more effective learning and on-task behaviour.
 
The implementation of the soundfield systems through the Classroom Acoustics project has been received well by all of the schools involved. Findings from the evaluation indicate that soundfield systems have the potential to reduce barriers to learning for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, who are learning in inclusive settings (Toe 2012).