A small, pilot study is examining how mobile technology might support deaf and hard-of-hearing college students when an interpreter can’t be present at the time the services are requested.

The first phase of the University of Cincinnati research project involved a college student taking a course in a large, auditorium-style classroom. The student used an iPad to gain the services of an interpreter, who was also using an iPad, in a different location.

In the second half of the pilot study, the technology was tested as the student took part in a cooperative education experience off campus and out of state. Using Apple's Facetime video calling technology, the interpreter was able to sign the conversations heard from where the student was located.

"We’re examining how technology can be used when an interpreter is available, but physically can’t be where the student needs them and at the moment they need them," explained Suzanne Ehrlich, the study’s principal investigator and assistant professor and director of the UC Signed Language Interpreting Program.

At the moment, universities and colleges often have a pool of contracted interpreters that can be called by deaf and hard-of-hearing students in advance of a registered time and date needed for their services, she said.

But the college environment often poses a challenge to this because many activities happen in real-time. "Students may leave their classes agreeing to meet for small group talk after dinner for example," she said. "This leaves the deaf student scrambling for an interpreter at the last minute."

Considered use of the iPad could change that.

The reseachers said the student’s co-op employer gave the test project a positive review. The employer reported that while using the iPad to communicate with colleagues, the student appeared to have been more engaged in meetings where the iPad was used for interpreting services. Challenges included running into connectivity issues that can result with inconsistencies in using Wi-Fi technology.

Ehrlich said they plan to expand the project beyond the first phase of the pilot study to test the technology on additional students and interpreters, and beyond Apple technology. "We're also looking at the development of an app that would serve this — we want to have a text option, like Skype," she added.

The University of Cincinnati research will be presented on Wednesday at the Critical Link 7 International Conference in Toronto. The conference theme is "Global Awakening: Leading Practices in Interpreting."