18 January 2014

On translating media

There were a few people missing from this week's session—for good reasons—and so I decided to record it and put it on the course blog. I always carry a camera and a digital recorder to class just in case, so the very basic technical requirements were met.

I've been posting presentations on Slideshare for years, and linking to them from blogs (most of them just for the sake of having public copy of, for example, a mentor training session). I've learned to annotate slides with speech balloons to provide brief comments in lieu of the missing speech track, and the results have been well received.

I've also done prepared "slidecasts" on the same platform, recording a dedicated speech track to elaborate the visuals, and of course video recordings of lectures. And other institutions have audio-recorded my sessions, and posted them unedited alongside the slides.

But I'd never before spontaneously translated a live lecture into a commentated slidecast, and it was an interesting experience...

I had the slides. I had the sound. All I had to do was to put them together (and Slideshare has tools for that)... Simples!

Yes, of course, in technical terms. But far from it as an editor...

First, I had to clean up the sound. It was readily intelligible, despite coming from a cheap digital recorder left on a desk, but low-level noise from the projector just made it more difficult to listen for an extended period. I am using Audacity—a clear candidate for the best freeware package ever; despite not having used it for a couple of years I rapidly got up to speed. (Hint; the help file and manual tell you the most difficult ways to anything. Just play with it and see what happens.)

Then I had to listen to it. That was the revelation. I'm a great fan of using video to help practitioners to polish their practice, but I hadn't realised how much the visual context influences the interpretation of the audio. My lectures on video are fairly coherent and fluent. It's clear when I stop talking for effect. Or when I am listening to a member of the class, and my next remark is an answer to her (even when the sound system does not pick up her point). Or why the sound perspective* changes when I cross the room to write on the whiteboard I use for notes, or return to the lectern where the mic is located; I don't go for a clip-on (lavalier) mic, because that needs another mic for the rest of the class, and since I do this stuff single-handed, mixing is not really on. Besides, one mic for me and another for everyone else may be realistic, but it does privilege my voice.

Take the contextual visual information away and, although you may have planned visuals (slides) on the screen, the audio assumes prominence and dictates the progression of the lecture.

My respect for radio presenters has multiplied. The ability to articulate without hesitation (repetition and deviation we shall leave to politicians) and "umm"s and "er"s really takes skill and practice. I thought I was fairly fluent as a teacher, and I was reasonably content with my performances on video, but the raw audio track really exposed... all kinds of things, but at several points how downright boring I am. I mumble. Confident points run into the sand and disappear. I like to use the best word and I have a reasonable vocabulary to draw on—but my hesitation while I find the mot juste is not suspenseful, just boring.

So my plan to do a rough-cut and just slash and burn my more egregious digressions hit the dust. Mumbles and hesitations had to go. And that takes a long time. About four times as long as the initial recording, even when you are reasonably proficient with the editor—and I had about 150 minutes. =10 hrs editing. Even longer if a technician did it for me.
But what about student contributions? Using a single mic, even in "meeting" mode, meant that some were inaudible; but since it was a small group and they could hear each other well enough, I had dropped my usual trick of repeating/paraphrasing the point so everyone could get it, and the contributor knew that I had understood it. (I didn't realise I had done this until I listened to the audio.) Should I keep them or dump them?

To a certain extent this is an issue about the "privileged" voice. Cut the digressions and asides and questions, stick with the prepared material, and the package will be much slicker and neater and shorter. Isn't that what listeners will want?

Yes, but... I make a point of picking up ideas from student contributions, and I may comment on them at some length, or not. In any event, I am likely to go to a whiteboard and make a note to expand on the point in the post-session blog. The live class can see what I am doing, so the "punctuation" and status is clear; without that context, it is all too easy to lose one's way in the audio stream.

It is of the nature of these spontaneous discussions that they can become rather rambling and time-consuming, and all too often they are of interest only to one or two students. (How to close them down and move on politely in the real-world class is often quite awkward—it's a lot easier online. But indiscriminate—or should that be discriminatory?—cutting can easily misrepresent the class as it appears on-line.)

And then there are the ethical considerations...

...and the question whether any of the members absent from the live session would really want to spend two and a half hours or so listening to this stuff, when some of the slides would stay on screen for ten minutes or more, while all the action is on audio. And, critically, they cannot contribute.

The live session had comfort and refreshment breaks, so I shall break it down into ten-minute slide-cast episodes, but I am beginning to realise what that entails in terms of navigation... and as this blog-post reminds me, it is very hard to skim audio material, so there's also the matter of what demands one can reasonable make on a listener's time.

Sorry, folks. Don't expect anything in time for next Tuesday!

* "sound perspective" refers to the consequences of recording close to the source (like pop singers who almost eat their microphones) or at a greater distance which takes in any ambient noise or echo.

[I could have linked you into examples from the session, but I didn't seek permission (from the students, of course... never mind the university).

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