Digital pencasts, or a seminar report on multimodal transcription

Using diagrams in an interview, Varga-Atkins, Mark O'Brien 2009
Using diagrams in an interview, Varga-Atkins, Mark O’Brien 2009

I’m interested in using pencasts (drawings or text annotated by synchronous audio comments) for exploring perceptions around learning (and e-learning) experiences, and recently attended a seminar given on on multimodal transcription by MODE members, Diane Mavers and Jeff Bezemer.

The interest in drawing and diagrams as a research tool came from my involvement in a previous research project when we asked participants to draw diagrams or drawings to talk about their experiences of professional development in schools. Mark O’Brien and I wrote up our experiences on using diagrams and drawings for an article for a journal (IJRME) in 2009. Sparked by this article, Canadian colleagues Muriah Umoquit and Peggy Tso contacted us and since then we have been fruitful in collaborating on the use of diagrams as an interview technique (one output of this is soon to appear in a special issue in IJRME).

Drawings or diagrams, at least in the way I have used them in interviews, allow participants to recount their experiences (whether of an e-learning experience or other) in a different ‘mode’, the visual (and more precisely, graphic), as opposed to the usual interview mode: verbal (speech), which can help participants focus on the topic in question and more usually, see their experiences in a new light. In any case, the discussion of the produced visual artefact is part of the interview, the interesting bit is not necessarily always the drawing (or diagram) itself, but what is said about it! One of the questions for the researcher is therefore what becomes of your data: the drawing/diagram, or the transcript of the interview, or both? But your transcript and the drawing are two separate ‘objects’. So how do you manage them both?

The exciting development of digital pens is that this separation ceases to exist: a pencast is the synchronous combination of the penstroke (of the drawing) and the audio commentary. A bit like this: a video of the drawing (you will need Adobe Acrobat – latest version and your headphones to listen). Surely, I thought,  this is a great opportunity for this kind of research? So having set out to research the use of pencasts, interesting challenges come to the fore. For instance, how do you transcribe data that is multimodal?

This is what Diane and Jeff helped us to discuss so well at their seminar in Sheffield: first we discussed what multimodal means. Modes that can be either ’embodied’ modes (speech, gestures, gaze etc.) or those appearing on a surface (such as drawings, photos or text). Anything can be a mode, even the way a room is arranged! In the case of pencasts two modes combine  = drawing (visual) + audio commentary (speech).  We then looked at the issue of transcribing multimodal data. For instance, how do you transcribe a video of a surgical procedure taking place in an operating theatre? What is your unit of analysis & how do you go about transcribing your data? These issues were fleshed out in an engaging way by Diane and Jeff.

There are lots of interesting research projects happening at MODE, such as one on Digital Technologies in the operating theatre or Researching embodiment with digital technologies.  I was sitting next to Tatjana from Oxford, whose research was comparing lecturers’ language (and other modes) used in podcasts to a real live lecturing session, with a view to identify aspects that make a real live lecture engaging for students, and what of these aspects lecturers could use when making a podcast.

As for pencasts, there are numerous educational applications. Digital pens are great tools for note-taking for both staff and students; they could also be used for creating various teaching resources, especially when it is useful to draw or write numbers, equations as well as explaining them as you write them. See an example pencast from Chemistry for instance.

For more information on multimodal research, check out the 6th International Conference on Multimodality, Aug 2012 at the IOE, London. I hope to find out more and see how we can enrich our research into e-learning using (or researching) multimodal research methods, as well as present on using pencasts as a research method. If anyone is interested in having a more detailed chat about either of those research methods mentioned above or the educational applications of digital pens, feel free to contact me at      tva at liv dot ac dot uk.

Tünde (Varga-Atkins)

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