Thursday, March 10, 2011

Captioning as Therapy

Let's start with a bit of irony. As I write this Firefox seems to be choking on my captions. I'm not sure why. They do work in Chrome. I want to talk about how relaxing it is to make the captions. But surely it is not that relaxing to troubleshoot the technology when you don't know what's wrong with it, especially in a live setting with students who have become dependent on the technology working. I've been doing some of that lately, a part of the cause of the stress I'm feeling.

So far, most of that technology troubleshooting has proven to be my own error. I don't know Moodle well enough and thinking I've got something configured the way I want, in particular what students see after they've submitted a quiz for evaluation, I learn from their comments that they are not seeing what I want them to see. Then it's not immediately obvious that I flubbed it. So it takes a while and I make an accommodation for the students in the meantime that I really don't want to make, only to eventually learn that it was all unnecessary. If only I had known that when the problem first came to my attention.

I will talk about other, more important stresses in a bit, but let me get back to the captioning. For whatever reasons - either I'm better understanding what has to be done with it, or Dragon Naturally Speaking is producing a better quality transcript of my audio file, or when other things take a long time to do the time spent captioning just seems more manageable, I now have the feeling that captioning is a welcoming activity, one of the tasks I look forward to in the week. It kind of reminds me about my mother's knitting, only she could do that and something else that was cognitive as well, like playing a hand of bridge. With the captioning, you have to pay attention to that. But then it goes pretty well.

My process is this. I first record the video with Jing and I wear a headset so the microphone is pretty close to my mouth when I'm talking. The resulting audio quality is quite clear. I need two ancillary programs to make the captions. One is Dragon, which I already mentioned. The other is AOA audio extractor, which takes the Jing video and separates out an audio file in MP3 format. I have no idea why the following works, but it is a discovery that is useful to know. If you first run the AOA software and then launch Dragon, it will say the file is not in a format that it can transcribe. But if you launch Dragon first and then run AOA, Dragon transcribes the file fine.

By the time I'm ready to make a clean transcript I'd have uploaded the Jing video to YouTube already. When I'm actually doing the transcription, I have two Windows open, one above the other. The upper window has enough of the YouTube video that the playbar is visible. You need to start and pause the video and rewind a bit repeatedly as you make the transcript. In the lower window I've got Notepad open with Dragon's transcription of the video.

The Dragon file produces a text stream that has no punctuation in it. A significant aspect of producing a clean transcript is putting in punctuation, finding the start of new sentences and capitalizing there, putting in line spaces for a new paragraph to begin. Fortunately, I am captioning my own talking, so I have implicit knowledge of what I'm likely to say, especially when I'm doing intermediate micro topics like income and substitution effects, which I've taught a zillion times before. And I've learned that though sometimes my word choice is suspect, there is still sentence structure and a quite logical approach in the subject development. Over time, I've also become more familiar with the type of mistakes Dragon is likely to make regularly. For example, when I speak often instead of saying "is" I will append 's to the previous word. Dragon will frequently treat that as making a plural of the previous word, though sometimes it gets it right. When you know what to look for in making the corrections, it is not that hard. So you can read a few sentences ahead and punctuate that as best as you can. Sometimes that nails it with the audio and you can make rapid progress. Other times you do have to slow down to make corrections, but the frequency of doing that is not too great. So progress overall is made and that in itself feels quite rewarding.

When you've produced a clean transcript you can then upload to YouTube, which puts in the timings for you. That functionality is now quite good and YouTube processes the transcript fairly quickly. So you get to see your captioned video in short order. That too feels rewarding.

* * * * *

I want to turn now to my main teaching dilemma and to describe what is really stressing me out. I always go into something new I'm trying with high expectations. Those expectations are not founded on prior experience but rather on aspirations I have for the approach. When experience begins to confound the expectations, rather than modify the expectations and keep my mood on an even keel (probably a mature thing to do) I go through both disillusionment - how could I have been so wrong? - and stress as I put pressure on myself to try to preserve the original conception as best as possible by looking for new ways to salvage the approach.

In both of my classes I'm having students blog in a team structure. The idea was to connect the narrative that they are reading about to their own personal narrative in a way that should produce a novel synthesis. But this idea that a synthesis should emerge puts a lofty expectation on people who don't have a lot of experience doing this sort of thing. I try to do it regularly in this blog, but I've been doing it for some time and had a lot of writing experience even before the blogging. So maybe it is unfair to expect this but I've tricked myself into believing otherwise.

In the intermediate course I've written a bunch of essays for the students that are meant to explain the economics on terms students can relate to. This proved a success as many of the students were able to produce pieces tying their experiences to what was in an essay. But over several weeks this has turned into Frankenstein's monster. My intent for the class was that we'd read other things too, Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers and a bunch of journal articles that I believed were accessible to students at this level, the first of which was Paul David's famous paper on QWERTY. Most of the students haven't yet written about Heilbroner and among those who did write about QWERTY, they clearly didn't understand what they were reading. Rather than insert their experiences into Paul David's narrative, something I'm sure they hadn't seen before, they recast his paper to coincide with the narrative they were already familiar with. There is no learning in that. And it is rather frightening as an informed and interested party to witness.

Not all students did this. There are one or two groups who seem pretty much on top of things. But the entire reason for trying this approach was to produce more democratic outcomes. I was getting the handful of good students 16 years ago when I started to turn to technology to address the issue that most weren't getting it. If that's still going to be the outcome, it sure is a lot easier to just teach the theory as an applied math course and be done with it, which is what most everyone else who teaches this course does. I don't want to call it a day yet, but I'm unclear on how to get these students to a higher level in their reading and their writing. And it is evident as we approach mid semester that many of the students are no longer enamored with the approach - the novelty has worn off - and they are just trying to get through the course as it is required in their major.

In the other course on behavioral economics the challenge is a bit different, but the issue of producing a synthesis that goes beyond what they are reading remains. The students seem extraordinarily locked into their own view of the world and from my perspective are very repeated in talking about experiences to support their views. This creates the impression that they are very resistant to new ideas, some of which includes the style in which the course is given.

Part of the issue seems to be what we are reading. After about five weeks of reading individual pieces on a variety of topics, we are reading the book Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler. And I confess that on my first reading of the book I had trouble with it, because of the underlying philosophy - libertarian paternalism - which I don't believe they justified sufficiently. On the other hand, because I had this prior experience thinking about what software might promote learning and what software struggles to do so, a lot of their ideas simply carry over. So even if the underlying philosophy is a struggle, the suggestions are often quite reasonable. But this may be the wrong time to be teaching this stuff, given the politics we're experiencing now. Many of the students are anti big government. And I have the feeling that their view about politics is blocking them from getting positive things from this book that they might otherwise get.

Again the question is what do I do as a teacher to unblock their thinking, a question that's been stressing me out quite a bit lately. I really don't want to change their politics, and they are probably reasonable in being suspicious on that score. Yet they are also being very heads down about nudges in their own lives that actually are effective. I go back to the Orwell line that I find so true.
" To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. "
So I'd like to see the students struggle more. As it is, a good number of them have stopped coming to class. I suppose most undergraduates don't see it as their lot to struggle, particularly to struggle intellectually.

* * * * *

The blogging it seems has opened up Pandora's box. I've thought a bit about closing it again, returning to a more traditional approach which surely would be more manageable. The captioning is therapeutic on that score too because the transcripts I'm making are only for the math/technical material. There is no having the students weave their own narrative in there. That's the old I shovel it out and they dish it up approach. Implicitly the students are expressing that's what they want because because that's what they are used to. I can't say I blame them for that. Not knowing what to make of that, therapeutic comfort is welcoming.

No comments: