What can a teacher learn from transcribing interviews?

headphones
Photo “headphones” taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mzn37/ by Michael Newman, used under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

It’s that time of year again. I’m back in the office, working on #amoresproject. This post is only tangentially related to the project so this is not going to be an update – if you’re new to my blog or missed my earlier posts on the topic, you might want to have a look here and here.

I have previously said – well, I can’t remember if I’ve said it in that many words on the blog, but certainly plenty of times in other contexts – that it’s been really interesting working on the project in a non-teaching role. I enjoy teaching, but it’s generally familiar ground. It was great to have the opportunity to work in a different environment and deal with tasks a teacher does not normally do in the course of a day. Not just because it was novel, but also because I now feel more confident that I would still be employable if, at some point, teaching, for whatever reason, was no longer an option.

For instance, something I recently did was transcribe interviews. I don’t know that this particular skill will contribute significantly to my employability; however, I was surprised to discover that there are agencies out there that offer this as a billable service. At roughly $1-4 per audio minute, depending on how quickly you need the finished product and the level of accuracy you’re happy with.

These were interviews with teachers on the project – we needed to find out how they felt about a number of aspects of the pilot now that it’s over. The first one was with the Croatian teachers: we thought it would make more sense to interview them in Croatian, as they’re not teachers of English, and thus might find it easier to express themselves and feel more comfortable in their mother tongue, particularly as the interview was recorded. The plan was that my boss would do the interview and share the audio files with me, and I would translate them so that they could be used in the pilot evaluation.

As this was a first for me – translating audio (into writing) – I’m not even sure this qualifies as transcription. I tweeted this as I was working so if you know a more accurate term, please let me know in the comments.

The recording was about 35 minutes long and seemed easy enough to follow content-wise, so I translated directly; I listened to the original in Croatian and typed out the English translation. The second interview was with the UK teachers and that, obviously, was transcribing. The audio was roughly the same length, maybe 5 minutes longer, and I should point out that another researcher met with the teachers in person, so I wasn’t present at that interview either.

I was fascinated by the differences between the two resulting texts. Despite the similar length, the Croatian document was just 7 pages long compared to the UK one at 15. I thought I would describe some of my observations about working on both interviews, and recommend a pretty useful tool at the end.

The Croatian interview

  • The first thing I noted was the length of turn-taking: the interviewer asked a question and one of the teachers would answer in some detail, speaking generally for around a minute. Okay, perhaps this didn’t stand out quite so much until I transcribed the UK interview, about which more below. Just to illustrate what I mean though, the Croatian interviewer had 24 turns, while the UK one had 85!
  • What did stand out from the start was that none of the interlocutors spoke across each other. I remember thinking that they were almost too polite in terms of waiting for the other speakers to complete their sentences, at least compared with a typical (not overly formal) conversation. I suppose this could have been out of consideration for the translator, but it’s a little difficult to keep up as the conversation goes on just for that reason, I think.
  • There’s this thing you’re taught as a first grader in Croatia – answer in full sentences. “What do you think was the most important part of the book?” “The most important part of the book was…” – takes me back to elementary school. 🙂 I got the impression it was sometimes used in the interview to buy the interlocutor some time and allow them to organize their thoughts.
  • Because I was translating and wanted to convey the message in the source language as accurately as possible, I wasn’t sure initially if I should ignore fillers like “um”. There were, however, relatively few ums, and as they didn’t add anything to the meaning I eventually decided against including them in the translation. Other words/phrases that did seem to serve the purpose of fillers were “also”, “in a way” and “certain” (as in “certain level”, “certain content”) – i.e. their Croatian equivalents, and I included those in the text.
  • It was easy to follow the speakers; they enunciated clearly and apart from one short segment that was inaudible because it hadn’t recorded properly I was able to hear and understand everything that was said in the interview. The audio was broken up into 20 short files and thus easy to manipulate.

The UK interview

  • The length of turn-taking was noticeably shorter. The interlocutors rarely spoke for a minute; there were some longer turns, but generally this was much more like a real conversation with people cutting across each other and speaking at the same time – even though the interviewer said they should try and avoid that at the very beginning. The UK teachers had 76 and 84 turns, while the Croatian ones had 19 and 20.
  • I noticed the fillers a lot more. Maybe I should have been more selective about including them in the text because, again, not all added significantly to the meaning, but since I was transcribing and didn’t have to process the content as much as when I was translating, I found it easier to just type what I heard. Those that seem to have been used frequently are “um”, “okay”, “yeah”, “you know” and “obviously”.
  • The interlocutors spoke in short bursts, compared to the first interview. By this I mean that they tended to utter a segment and then pause, which meant ellipsis featured quite heavily in the text.
  • The teachers occasionally asked each other questions, unlike in the first interview where only a couple of references to what their colleague had said a little while previously indicated that the two teachers had actually been interviewed together.
  • It was at times quite difficult to follow the speakers. A spot of googling revealed that when transcribing you will either not hear fragments (or longer utterances), which you should indicate in the text as “inaudible” or you won’t be able to make out exactly what you’ve heard, which you should indicate as “unintelligible”. It’s apparently also good practice to note down approximately how many words you missed out. There were several times when I very reluctantly put down [unintelligible 2-3 words] because either the speakers trailed off or ran their words together to the extent I couldn’t decipher what they were saying even when I slowed the recording down. I say very reluctantly not because I think those fragments added something significant to the meaning, but because of this nagging feeling – hard to shake off – that someone will say it was unintelligible to me because I’m not a native speaker. Although rationally, of course, people obviously have better things to do with their time.

One final thing – the useful tool I mentioned. I was about 10 minutes into the UK transcription – that would be 10 minutes of audio and 2 hours of typing – when I came across this page, containing tips on transcribing interviews. Some helpful soul had shared it on Twitter. I was suddenly dizzy with the discovery of machine transcription! OMG! I could sit back and let YouTube do the work for me. To cut a long story short – and uploading a 40-minute audio file to YouTube as a video takes a surprisingly long time – YouTube could not even attempt a transcription of the interview. Possible reasons are that the sound is too low, speech too indistinct, or the recording is simply too long.

I tried out this service as well; I’m not sure if it’s available to everyone, but it was free of charge once I registered. I received the transcription in a few hours, but it was unfortunately inaccurate to the point of being pretty much useless.

Finally, I signed up for a free trial of Transcribe, and was absolutely thrilled with the results. After my unsuccessful forays into machine transcription territory their claim that “automatic audio to text conversion is largely science fiction” sounded like they might really know what they were talking about. Anyway, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You upload the audio, so, obviously, it works with any language, and being able to manipulate the audio and type on the same page is already a huge time-saver. In addition, you can slow down or speed up the recording, activate a loop which basically allows you to keep typing instead of wasting time replaying the audio manually, move back and forth in tiny increments… I love it!

Have you ever had to transcribe audio? Was it in one or more languages and did you notice any differences? Any tips for effective transcribing?

On the road with AMORES

A couple of months ago I wrote here about a project I’m currently involved in, called AMORES. It’s an EU-funded project aimed at developing a love for literature in children, specifically through e-artefact creation and collaboration. You can find out more about the project on the website, including info on the partners, our results so far, and the news items charting our progress. There’s also a Facebook page, and we share project news on Twitter using the hashtag #amoresproject. There. Let it not be said that I do not take dissemination seriously. 🙂

Like in the first post, I thought I would tell you more about the project goings-on from the viewpoint of a researcher. Which is what my job title officially is. At times that’s what it feels like too, but I have also dabbled in community management, tech support provision and the occasional administrative task. Despite the convenience of being able to contribute to the project online, I have found that I tend to get most work done when I go into the office while I’m in Zagreb. This is also probably due to fewer distractions: I’m in the office either during exam time or before the academic year gets under way in early October.

Since I last blogged about AMORES, the central part of the project has begun – the pilot implementation stage. Earlier on in the school year teachers in the five partner schools and their students developed a number of e-artefacts based on different literary works they were covering in language and/or literature classes. These have included comic strips, videos, digital cookery books and more. The next step, which is currently in progress, involves the schools sharing their creations with students from another country during a videoconference, introducing them to their national literature in the process. There is a very good account of how this works in practice here, written by Magdalena Gałaj, a teacher of English from Poland.

September

Rewind to last fall. The summer was understandably rather quiet on the AMORES front; things only started moving again around the time school began. I’ve decided that while I still prefer teaching to sitting behind a desk, there are certain advantages to office work. You come in at a normal hour as opposed to 7:30 for in-company classes. You don’t need to be all bright and perky, trying to prod your students into action, and you don’t necessarily need to make much of an effort with your appearance. (It’s not like I come in wearing pyjamas, but my colleagues’ attention is on their computers, not me.) Oh, and you leave at a time when the English teacher would normally be coming to work in the afternoon.

Anyway, I was going to talk about the project. I’d started working more on dissemination over the summer – in particular, coming up with items to post on the Facebook page. Whenever there was something remotely newsworthy going on, we would post that, but in the meantime I decided to follow the advice of a former student of mine, a public relations major, who pointed out the importance of drawing up a media plan. Applying this to our social media context, I figured we’d better start serving something up on a fairly regular basis. I got the idea of using Scoop.it from this post by Sandra Rogers, and found some excellent content that way – great articles on books, reading, digital storytelling, libraries, etc. We also had an impromptu photo session in the office to mark International Literacy Day, and compiled the AMORES answer to the book challenge.

How can you tell I really got into this community management stuff? 🙂 The only slightly worrying aspect is that we still only have fewer than 150 fans, so there’s the somewhat pertinent question of how much disseminating is actually going on. Oh well. Obviously, all this will stand me in good stead one fine day when I become admin of a page called Daily Dose of Cat Cuteness.

At the same time we were also finishing off the deliverables that were part of work packages (WPs) 1 and 2 – they mostly needed polishing and in some cases a bit of revision. They’ve since all been published here – I personally think it’s a bit frustrating that you have to register to download them, but can see the need for download stats when we submit our report to the EACEA.

The second part of September saw teachers in the project starting to hold workshops for parents, explaining the nature of the project and how their children were going to be involved throughout the school year. The steering group had their second meeting, this time in Denmark. And a rather unexpected thing happened in early October, just before I left – at a dissemination event I got to shake hands with the Croatian President. I hasten to add that this was a complete accident; I was there to hang out with one of the partners on the project, and the President was having an incredibly busy time of it last fall, attempting to shake hands with the entire population of the country since he was up for re-election in January. In case you’re wondering – no, it didn’t work.

February

I continued to do some work online in the following months, but AMORES came back into focus for me when I arrived in Zagreb for exams. Things were hectic. WP3 was at the stage when videoconferences would need to start being organized, and it transpired that the teachers would need quite a bit of support. Perhaps even more than the videoconferences it was Edmodo that presented a problem, as most of the teachers were unused to it and the idea was to use it as a secure platform for sharing e-artefacts between schools. The week I arrived we discovered our budget amendment had been approved, and we were cleared to go ahead with planning two more trips – an additional UK workshop for teachers and a steering group meeting in Sweden – as well as school visits between partner schools. Most of these would take place before the summer. I was given the task of scheduling some of these trips and found Doodle a very useful tool in that regard. Since I was using it for scheduling meetings outside the project as well, at one point it felt a bit like Doodle was my most regular email correspondent.

March

Once exams were over and summer semester classes had begun I headed back to Belgium. However, this time there was something project-related I was definitely looking forward to – the UK workshop, which I was going to! It was decided that I should, as part of what I do is support teachers, and I thought it was only fitting that I would finally meet them all in person and show them that I am not just about nagging people to fill in Doodle polls and assorted documentation. Which, I am afraid, is the impression some of them may have gotten from my emails. 😛

The workshop once again took place in Stoke-on-Trent. In addition to getting to do a bit of sightseeing around Birmingham, a Robbie Williams tour in Stoke (a first for the amused cab driver), and a generally busy and interesting social schedule, the workshop was highly useful and productive. The teachers had many questions and suggestions regarding practical issues, such as the use of Edmodo, and there was plenty of opportunity to share ideas and plan practicalities; for example, schedule future videoconferences. WP1 and 2 leaders also presented their findings on the reading habits of students in the project, and these will be used to measure whether student attitudes to reading have changed as a result of having taken part in AMORES, i.e. whether a love of reading has developed, so to speak, and to what extent.

AMORES workshop in Stoke-on-Trent - all pics by Magdalena Gałaj
AMORES workshop in Stoke-on-Trent – all pics by Magdalena Gałaj

Before I wrap up this post, I should probably stress that this is only a glimpse of what working on AMORES is like, and brings only one role into sharper focus. It is, in fact, a pretty massive undertaking and there are many people working hard to bring it to a successful end. Some of them have also blogged about it – see, for instance, this post by Dr Mark Childs and this one by Dr Geoff Walton; also this one by Janet Hetherington. The project is scheduled to go on until November, so watch this space. If there’s any aspect you’d like to hear more about, please let us know in the comments!

That’s AMORES

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed an occasional tweet tagged with #amoresproject, such as this one I had pinned to the top of my profile page for a while.

I doubt anyone’s been wondering what that’s all about to the point of losing sleep, but I thought I’d enlighten you anyway. Okay, not the most inspired of openings, I know. It’s not meant to sound flippant as the AMORES project is actually built around an incredibly worthy cause – especially to a die-hard bookworm like me.

How I got involved

If you’d asked me a year ago to comment on the reading habits of kids today I would have probably said they’re always on Facebook (or whatever social network is popular among a particular age group) and read very few actual books – paper books, that is. Or books in any format, for that matter. I would’ve mostly based this on media reports read or heard in passing, and I wasn’t overly concerned with the issue, to be frank. I don’t teach kids, so I was hardly in a position to do anything about it anyway.

Then last fall, when I’d already moved to Belgium, I was asked by the Croatian Academic Research Network (CARNet) to join AMORES. Which is CV-speak for badgering my current boss to let me join the MOOC team, who eventually went on to design and run the first Croatian MOOC earlier on this year…oh, how I do get sidetracked. Sigh. As it turned out, she didn’t need me on the MOOC team, but asked if I would be interested in working on AMORES, which was starting soon, as they needed a researcher.

What is it already?

You’re probably wondering by this point if you should just go and google it yourself, but no need – AMORES stands for An Approach to Motivating Learners to Read in European Schools. You will no doubt have noticed that the acronym doesn’t fit to the letter, but it’s close enough. The main aim of this EU-funded project is to spur kids on to greater engagement with literature with a little help of ICT, specifically through the creation of digital artefacts. Besides CARNet as the lead partner, there are eight partner organizations from a total of six countries: Croatia, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the UK.

I could tell you more about the rationale for the project, about the partners, the aims, stats on kids’ reading habits and so on, but the website will do a better job of this. Instead, I thought I would share snippets of what I’ve been doing since the project started. You know, a kind of behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like working on an EU-funded project, from the viewpoint of someone who is doing this for the first time.

February

Things officially got under way in December, or at least we had a Skype meeting to get to know each other and talk about the first steps, what everyone’s role was going to be, and so forth. But I wasn’t actually required to do anything much until February. To be honest, when I talked about how I saw my role in the project during the Skype meeting, I wasn’t quite sure what it would entail. I understood that my experience with online learning (designing and moderating my Moodle course), and my pedagogical training would play a part, but was a little vague on how exactly. I went through the project description, a 100-page monstrosity, which wasn’t unhelpful, but it was a tad abstract. Of course, when I’d talked with my boss about what my responsibilities would be back in September, things had seemed clearer. Almost five months later, not so clear.

February was spent in the office. My main task was to assist the head of work package 1 – there are 8 of these work packages, or WPs for short – in preparing the foundation for the remainder of the project: compiling a literature review which describes the way digital content creation is being used (or not), specifically in teaching national literature, and conducting a needs analysis to determine the situation at each of the five schools taking part in the project, in terms of the learner context and learner and teacher needs.

Enter another project management term which had seemed abstract before – deliverable. The person who did most of the work on putting together the two deliverables of the paragraph above was the WP1 leader, but most partners were involved to some degree. In the meantime, work on some of the other WPs had commenced as well, and as I was conveniently in the office – seated right across from my boss (the overall project coordinator) – I helped out with whatever was necessary. For instance, at the time we were running a contest to choose the project logo and contributor guidelines had to be drawn up.

Winning logo
Winning logo

One of the things I remember most vividly from the period is how draining I discovered sitting a whole day in the office can be. I had used to spend a considerable amount of time in the Octopus office, so I thought this couldn’t be any different. Get yourself a decent chair, that helps. Another thing I recall was to what extent I came to identify with the project. Most of the other partners were going about their jobs and contributed some of their time to AMORES – all in line with the project plan. The teachers would start getting more actively involved after the teachers’ workshop in March, for instance. I, on the other hand, was spending almost every day amoresing and eventually felt very disappointed I wouldn’t be going to Athens for the official kick-off meeting, since I wasn’t a member of the steering group. How could I not be?? How would they even get on without me there?? 🙂

May

The steering group met in Greece in early March and I returned to Belgium. Soon afterwards the teachers met for a workshop in the UK, marking the start of WP2. The idea was to have the teachers develop as a team a draft of the methodology which would eventually be used in the pilot implementation stage (WP3), when the new school year started. March and most of April were quiet for me. There was less to do in my researcher role, and not entirely surprisingly, once I was away from the office, other things surfaced which needed to be taken care of.

Then the online course for the teachers began. During the workshop the teachers had decided on the technologies they wanted to introduce into their literature lessons, in order to encourage pupils to create digital content and collaborate online. The course was meant to allow them to develop a familiarity with some of these tools and gain confidence, particularly with more challenging ones such as videoconferencing, so that they could easily incorporate them into their lessons.

The eight-week course was held in Moodle. Now I’m no Moodle expert, but I am pretty familiar with it by now (and enjoy using it), so during this stage I was able to help with the syllabus design, and also in terms of adding course content and moderating discussions. We actually haven’t analyzed the feedback forms yet to see how satisfied the teachers were with the course, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say improvements are in order. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it would be not to run an online course for teachers at the end of the school year. It is just lousy timing. In any case, some revisions might have to be made taking the teachers’ heavy workload into account.

June & July

June saw me back at the Zagreb office – this time I got the desk right next to the boss. 🙂 The online course only finished in the last week of June, so that took up most of the month. The rest of the time was spent finalizing various WP1 and WP2 deliverables, some of which will eventually be published on the AMORES website. Yes, we are a little behind with some of these – summer holidays and all that.

The other area I’ve been dabbling in over the past two months is dissemination. In fact, it has a work package all of its own; dissemination is apparently a serious business. I didn’t expect to contribute much to WP6 initially, but that changed when the project website went live and AMORES got its Facebook page. A brief digression here – while I was at Octopus, I managed the school Facebook page. It drove me mad at times because I’m not a trained community manager, and I also feel distinctly uncomfortable publicizing my product or service (which is a whole other story). But at least the page content was regularly updated and people could see the school was still in business.

The AMORES page was a tad neglected over the first couple of months, and I often found myself itching to post something. Towards the end of May we agreed that I would play at being community manager for a while, since disseminating project news on Facebook is part of the project plan. The thing is, you can’t just occasionally post updates on the project (we don’t exactly have news breaking on a daily basis) – it’s a good idea to include other content as well.

To be continued…

That would refer to the project. The post is done – goodness knows it’s long enough. How is it that I can’t manage a short post? Maybe the secret is in writing more regularly? Anyway, I hope this has been at least mildly interesting if not exactly useful – especially if you were expecting something to do with language teaching, which I guess would not be entirely unreasonable, given the tagline.