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Real-time online interpreting makes for inclusive and engaging learning
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division / Afdeling Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 28/09/2021

*In celebration of the opportunities and possibilities multilingualism creates, the Division of Learning and Teaching Enhancement is hosting a Language Day conference on 30 September. As part of this celebration of multilingualism, we will highlight some of the projects undertaken by the Stellenbosch University Language Centre. 

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on higher education, and with the implementation of augmented remote teaching, learning and assessment (ARTLA) at Stellenbosch University (SU), a range of academic support tools have been implemented for SU staff and students. One of these is real-time online interpreting, an initiative driven by the SU Language Centre to provide dedicated language support to the University community. 

The initiative, which forms part of the offering of the Language Centre's Interpreting Service, provides real-time online interpreting of lectures in Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa and South African Sign Language via the MS Teams platform. By mid-September, which marked the end of the third term, the Interpreting Service had already interpreted 822 lectures for the 2021 academic year. Modules currently supported with this type of interpreting are in the faculties of Economic and Management Sciences, Medicine and Health Sciences, Arts and Social Sciences, Science, and Engineering. 

“Real-time online interpreting has many benefits, including offering students from all language backgrounds access to the same course material, at the same time, in the language of their choice," says Juanli Theron, head of the Interpreting Service. “With lecturers' permission, lectures are also recorded, which means that a recording of all language options is available at the end of the lecture." 

Positive experience 

Theron says lecturers who have joined the real-time online interpreting community are generally very positive about the experience. “Change is always daunting, and we need to take into account that lecturers have had to deal with many changes and challenges since the start of 2020. The introduction of real-time online interpreting was yet another curveball. But we find that the lecturers who have adopted this mode of teaching are very positive about the results." 

Some lecturers were hesitant to join the real-time online interpreting service at first because they thought it would add to their already heavy workload, she says. But after a demonstration, they soon realised that it was a streamlined process. “All they need to do is schedule two or three parallel sessions for their lecture, and make sure that the interpreters are invited to all the sessions," Theron explains. “Interpreters then attend the English session to listen to the lecture and use one of the alternate language sessions to provide Afrikaans or isiXhosa interpreting. The students can then choose which session to attend. Interpreters also share the screen from the English session, so Afrikaans and isiXhosa students can see exactly what the English students see, while listening to a different voice." 

Multiple benefits 

Prof Pierre Erasmus, a lecturer in the Department of Business Management, made use of real-time interpreting in two of his third-year Financial Management modules. “It was a lifesaver," he says. “Due to the restrictions on venue capacity, not all students who had registered for my modules – around 350 per module – could attend class in person. So, we had to livestream the lecture online while it was presented, and also record it for those students who could neither attend the class nor follow the livestreaming. Since these modules are normally presented in parallel medium – to an English and Afrikaans group at the same time – we needed at least two lecturers to present to the two groups. 

“But my colleague who usually presents to the one group went on maternity leave in the first semester, which meant that we did not have the capacity to manage two concurrent lectures in Afrikaans and English. Since real-time online interpreting enabled me to reach both the Afrikaans and English students simultaneously, it significantly cut down on the time I would have had to spend on duplicating each lecture," says Erasmus.

He adds: “To me, the main benefit was that I had to present only one lecture, and all students had access to the same lecture, at the same time. If I had to repeat lectures to the Afrikaans group, students in one language group would have missed out on the class discussions and questions asked in the other group. So, in addition to saving time, it also ensured that all students received the same experience and treatment."

“For students, an added benefit was having access to both an Afrikaans and English recording for each lecture, which they could watch whenever they wanted to," Erasmus continues. “Some of our Afrikaans students attend the English classes and choose to complete their assessments in English. For these students, the opportunity to listen to an Afrikaans as well as an English version meant that they were able to switch between the two if they struggled to understand a concept." 

Additional multilingual support 

In addition, when the pandemic and strict lockdown in 2020 necessitated urgent and almost immediate changes to reach students, the Interpreting Service introduced audio translations (podcasts) of lecture material – whether PowerPoint slides or SUNLearn content – into Afrikaans and English. They also offered podcasts in isiXhosa where there was a pedagogical need. Over 1 250 podcast translations have since been produced. 

Dr Sharon Malan, Extended Degree Programme leader in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, used this service to translate the PowerPoint notes of her module into Afrikaans, as well as to produce Afrikaans voice-overs (or podcast translations). “It saved me time, and my students now have the option to freely make use of lecture material available in both English and Afrikaans, as needed," she says. 

“In 2020, podcasts translations were very popular, precisely because they were so useful – lecturers were thankful to be able to provide multilingual lectures to their students without any extra effort from their end," explains Theron. “They would simply contact us with their audio recordings and lecture material, and we would arrange a due date for delivery. Transfers of audio translations are mostly done via WeTransfer. These data-light podcasts played a pivotal role during the emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment (ERTLA) period, partly as a policy management solution, but also as a valuable pedagogical resource for online learning." 

She concludes: “With the move towards ARTLA this year, recorded lectures remain a key part of students' differentiated learning experience. Therefore, quality assurance is even more crucial, which is why the collaborative quality control of translated podcasts has been expanded to include more lecturers and subject fields."