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Going Remote: Challenges and Triumphs

Faced with growing demands, the Transcribers at West Virginia University made the decision to switch solely to remote transcribing — a choice that would lead to growth, as well as growing pains. To catch up, please check out part one of this series.

If you’ve ever seen someone put a sweater on a dog, you know that, more often than not, the dog stands there awkwardly, frozen in its confusion over this new, uncomfortable development. Sometimes, it will shuffle sideways, or walk in circles, trying to grow accustomed to the fact that something just doesn’t feel right.

During our first day in the new Transcriber/Interpreter Room at West Virginia University, we were sort of like that sweater-wearing dog. 

WVU Remote Transcriber “This is really weird,” Kelly said, running a hand along the fabric wall of her cubicle.

“You can say that again,” Katie said. She’d already moved her desk twice, trying to figure out the best angle to avoid window glare.

None of us knew quite what to expect.

We’d tried to make the transition as smooth as possible, going into the classrooms for the first few weeks to help prepare students and instructors for this new approach to transcription, but now the day had arrived to work from our “call center,” and our hesitation was starting to show.

It would be nice to say that, as the first calls came in, our fears dissipated — we relaxed into the rhythm of transcribing and found that, thanks to technology, we had not only perfected our craft but had also found new acceptance within the university community. That wasn’t the case though. Calls got dropped. Or else, they were muffled, unintelligible. Other times, they’d register with shocking volume. 

Even under the best circumstances, we all agreed, it wasn’t the same.

We enjoyed having a space of our own, were grateful not to fight against traffic and parking, appreciated not having to lug our equipment up and down WVU’s substantial hills. Still, we missed walking around campus, the dull glow of florescent lights made us long for the sun, and we were pretty sure that, even under the best circumstances, we were still capturing and chunking only about 80% of what we had been catching previously. Our mood was somber. What have we done? The question crossed everyone’s mind at some point.

Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day, we reminded ourselves. If we truly believed in our efficacy as “problem solvers,” then this was exactly the sort of experience that we had signed up for. We just had to figure out how to make it work.

We developed protocol for obtaining course notes, PowerPoint slides, and eCampus/Blackboard access, making class materials available to us so that we could follow along with spellings and vocabulary on the overhead, just as we had in class. 

We learned more effective ways to troubleshoot. We refined our equipment and our procedures. We moved from bulky lap tops with low-quality mics to sleeker tablets with powerful jawbone microphones. We upgraded our headphones. We auditioned different remote networking software. And we developed protocol for calling students and for maintaining a positive working environment now that there were a dozen of us working within a few feet of each other.

When Wi-Fi dropped in certain classrooms, we outfitted each student with an Ethernet cable. When students had trouble figuring out who their Transcriber was, we assigned them dedicated Web Linking channels in TypeWell. We became proactive, anticipating problems and solving them before they arose. We developed backup plans for our backup plans. And more than anything, we learned how important it was to keep our lines of communication open with students, to help them feel confident in our services and to encourage their active engagement in the problem-solving process.

Tablet computer with Mini Jambox Bluetooth microphone and back-up Ethernet adapter

At WVU, students using TypeWell services are equipped with a tablet computer paired with a Mini Jambox Bluetooth microphone, which transmits the audio from the classroom to the remote transcriber via Jabber or Skype. In case the WiFi goes down, the tablet has a back-up mini-USB-to-Ethernet adapter to ensure uninterrupted service.

A few students declined services. Others habitually missed appointments to pick up equipment. But the majority of students adapted well to remote services. They enjoyed the anonymity it provided them, the limited distraction, and they felt comfortable using the familiar technology of their smart phone or tablet. As new students have arrived, the progressive technological approach to offering accommodations has become a big selling point. As one student recently said during a demo, “That’s really cool.”

For our part, we’ve grown more comfortable with the setup, as well. Our processing, retrieval, and chunking skills have recovered to their previous levels. Our prep work and planning has taken on new significance. We no longer work through illness or emergency, finding it easy to fill sub requests. (We just poke our head over the cubicle wall and ask, “Who wants to cover an extra class?”) We no longer fight to justify our time during class cancellations. (There’s always something important to do around the office.) We meet regularly now and have the time to promote wellness, ergonomics, team building, and professional development within our program. Our increased efficiency has saved the Office of Accessibility Services a lot of money that would otherwise have been spent on travel expenses and outsourcing.

It hasn’t been an easy transition. We still run into problems, and we’re still working to make our services more effective. However, for those of us who spend our days providing communications access so that students can participate fully in their classes, this change has had a positive impact. Looking toward the future of our program, none of us can ask for much more than that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the back-up cable for the tablet computer as a "mini-HDMI-to-Ethernet" instead of a "mini-USB-to-Ethernet" cable. 

Jason Kapcala is Lead Transcriber for West Virginia University’s Office of Accessibility Services. Prior to becoming a Transcriber, he worked as a writer and college English instructor. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has appeared in a number of magazines and journals. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, listening to rock music, and working on his Dodge Challenger. 

Holly Fox-Schauffner is the Coordinator of Auxiliary Aids for West Virginia University’s Office of Accessibility Services. She began working as a sign language Interpreter in 2000 before transitioning into the role of Lead Transcriber and eventually Coordinator of Auxiliary Aids. In her spare time, Holly enjoys playing guitar, landscaping, skiing, and spending time with her partner, Enis, and their three children, Paige, Rune, and Kadence.


Guest contributors: Jason Kapcala and Holly Fox-Schauffner

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