Electronic tools for the classroom

In the lead up to September, I spent quite a bit of time tweaking the course websites for the three classes I’m teaching this semester. And as I resolved last year, I’ve stopped using WebCT and moved to WordPress instead–not just for my in-the-classroom course (Introduction to Translation into English), but also for my two online courses (Specialized Translation and Translation Studies). Thus far, I’m happy with the platform, and I think it will work well, but I’ll be sure to post a follow-up article in April, once I’ve had a real semester to test out the websites.

For this post, I wanted to share some of the tools I’ve been using for my online specialized translation course, in case other instructors are looking for solutions they can apply to their own courses.

I found this online tool when I was looking into options for posting audio or video recordings for my two online courses. Powerpoint, of course, allows you to create narrations to accompany a presentation, but what happens if you want to show students how to use the course website or an online tool? It’s a lot easier to do this if you can simply record what happens on your own computer screen as you demonstrate the process. Screenr allows you to record screen-capture videos, along with your audio commentary, and has several advantages: first, you don’t need to create an account to use it, since you can log-in using your Google, Yahoo, Twitter or Facebook account. This means you can start recording screencasts almost instantly. Second, it allows you to either link to the video hosted on screenr, post the video to YouTube or to download the .mp4 file (and, if you want, to delete the video from the screenr server).

There are, however, several restrictions. First, you can record a maximum of 5 minutes for each video, second, the videos need to be uploaded to the screenr server before they can be used, and third the videos are automatically shared with the community, whether you want them private or not. I’ve been able to work around these restrictions with very few headaches though. In the first case, I just record a series of videos on a topic and then load them up in a playlist. The students may even like being able to commit to watching just five minutes at a time… I’ll have to ask later in the term.

The uploading problem is a little more annoying. Every time I record a five-minute video, I have to upload the 8-10MB file to the screenr server just so that I can download it to my own computer and then re-upload it to the course website. Total prep time for a finished 5-minute, 8-12MB video posted onto the course website: about 15 minutes–or more if I need to re-record the video a few times to get it right. I just do some other prep work while I’m waiting for the uploading/downloading to finish. Of course, if I didn’t mind sharing the videos, I could just post a link video stored on the screenr server; other people may not find this problem as much of a hurdle as I do.

As for the third problem (automatic sharing of videos), I just download the video as soon as it’s finished uploading to the screenr server, and then I delete it from the screenr site. It’s generally available to the public for 30 seconds to a minute (though of course it may hang around on the screenr servers for a little longer… I’m mainly interested in ensuring the videos aren’t available for public viewing.) Other instructors may have different preferences, so maybe this particular screenr feature isn’t seen as a drawback by everyone.

A few months ago, I came across a very interesting blog post on ActiveHistory.ca showing how wordle takes a text, removes common words like “the” and “a”, and creates an image that uses different font sizes, according to the frequency with which each word appears in the text: the larger the font, the more frequent the word. While the original blog post discussed how to use Wordle to visually represent word frequencies in historical or political texts to help show changes in political vocabulary over time, the application can be used for translation classes too. For instance, here’s one I generated using Jean Charest’s February 23, 2011 inaugural address in French and in English:
jean charest-discours d'ouverture-23 fev 2011
jean charest-inaugural address-23 feb 2011

As you can see, the images (which can be generated in just a few seconds, with no need to create an account) help show differences in the most common words from the two versions of Charest’s address. Some of the largest words in the French image are Québec, développement, québécois and gouvernement, just as largest English words are Québec, development, Quebecers and government; but words like new, future,and better are different sizes in the two texts, though this is also due to the fact that wordle does not distinguish between variations on a root word (e.g. “nouveau,” “nouvelle,” “nouveaux,” etc. are treated as two different words, but they could all be translated by “new”). Obviously a corpus-analysis tool like WordList would give more accurate results, but wordle offers a quick visual representation of word frequency that could be used to help students look at a source text in a more analytical way. It allows them to do this very quickly and without needing to purchase or learn how to use any specialized software. I’ll be using some wordle-created word clouds of political manifestos that we’ll be translating later this term to have students think about the importance of lexical choices in the ST and to look for trends. But I can certainly think of other applications. For instance, students could use it to compare adapted texts to see what keywords have changed between the ST/TT versions. They could also use it to look at texts on the same topic to see how keywords change over time, from one organization to another, from one language to another, etc. For an undergraduate class, this tool could be a helpful way to get students to start reflecting about text function and lexical choices, which would then allow them to think about how to deal with these choices when translating.

Has anyone already used wordle in a translation course before? I’ll update in a few weeks, once I’ve had a chance to try it out with a group of students. What other tools have you found useful in translation classes?