Is interpreter continuing education online as good as in-person learning?

September 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

These months of confinement have changed our lives in many ways, including how we teach and learn. Despite the terrible consequences the pandemic brought to the professional interpreting world, there have been positive effects: a profession more united than ever before, and the possibility to attend courses, workshops and classes remotely from every corner on earth.

Professional development, expensive and out of many interpreters’ league became affordable overnight. On line classes are often offered free or at a fee considerably lower than in-person training sessions; travel expenses are never an issue when attending a workshop from your kitchen table, and even Ivy League quality institutions are offering a learning opportunity to those who would have never considered enrolling in one of their courses.

On line education and training has been an outlet to deal with the lockup, lack of income, and fear of the uncertain. It has also given instructors, professors, and trainers, a way to make a living in a time of closed college campuses and zero conferences.

Online learning is not new, but, just like video conferences, came of age during Covid-19. Suddenly, interpreters’ appetite to learn how to work remotely, protect and grow their business in a crisis, and going back to relearn the basics, created an immense wave of courses, workshops, webinars, and instructors who now co-exist with the better-known trainers and programs from before the quarantine. As a consequence, some of what is offered online is very good… and some is not.

I have discussed this situation in the blog before. It is very important, but I will not deal with it today. My concern in writing this blog has to do with the benefits from online learning on a professional interpreter. Is this an effective way to continue our professional development? And if so, is it comparable to in-person continuing education?

Instructors, government agencies, professional associations, and individuals are joining online professional development classes by the thousands. Besides the obvious workshops on how to interpret remotely from home, two main groups of colleagues are resorting to online education in the interpreting world: The interpreters driven by an aspirational motivation, and those who take advantage of this inexpensive method of obtaining continuing education credits to keep their license, accreditation, patent, or certification current.

The first group, consisting of an overwhelming majority of community interpreters (court, healthcare, education, etc.) gravitate towards those workshops, courses, and webinars that promise to teach them how to become conference interpreters, improve their simultaneous rendition, shake off their fear to interpret consecutively, learn a better note-taking system, get tips on how to do research, join a conference interpreting practice group, and others.

The second group includes those interpreters, usually court and healthcare interpreters, who must log in a certain number of continuing education hours every year to maintain their ability to practice in their field. To continue to interpret in court and medical settings, many interpreters must prove to their government or professional association they have accumulated the minimum credits needed to practice one more year. The possibility to get these credits on line has been around for years in several countries, but until now, most interpreters preferred to meet their continuous professional development requirements by physically attending an international, national, or regional conference where they could get the credits and do networking simultaneously.

This are very difficult times, but it caught my attention how most professional associations, and government agencies, grant continuing education credits to those attending an online event at the same credit-hour equivalency they do for in-person education. I teach courses, webinars and workshops several times a month. I have been doing it for many years, and my many decades of experience as an interpreter trainer and Law School professor show me that the level of learning online is lower than sitting in a classroom. Attention span, multiple distractions, unsupervised behavior, lack of peer-pressure, computer fatigue, and other circumstances, keep the student from learning at the same rate as a traditional system.

There are studies that show that 65 percent of those taking a webinar, workshop, or course online are multitasking most of the time they are in class. It gets even worse when the individual is attending the webinar by phone. “people often find conference calls to be an opportune time to do many, many other things: 65% do other work; 63% send emails; 55% eat or cook during class; 47% go to the washroom; 44% send text messages; 43% are checking social media; 25% play video games; 21% do online shopping; 9% exercise during class; and 6% are on the phone talking to someone else… Part of the reason all of this is possible… is the magical mute function.” (Harvard Business Review

In 1913, Max Ringelmann, a French engineer, discovered why virtual meetings are often so unsuccessful. Ringelmann asked a team of people to pull on a rope. He then asked individuals (separately) to pull on the same rope. He noticed that when people worked as individuals, they put more effort into pulling than when they worked as a team. We call this the “Ringelmann Effect.” The bigger the group, the less responsibility each individual feels. If one does not feel necessary to the success of the task, it’s easy to tune out or put in less effort. In virtual learning the Ringelmann effect is magnified. When you are not in the room to help “pull the rope” for a class, you might feel less motivated to listen and participate. (Harvard Business Review It is easy to turn off the video and the instructor will never know what the student did during class.

Because of these peculiar circumstances: less attention to what is been taught online, and the lack of certainty that the students gave their undivided attention to the lesson presented online, it does not in seem fair that the same credits be awarded for an online and an in-person workshop. Less credits should be awarded for continuing education online.

A continuing education unit (CEU) or continuing education credit (CEC) is a measure used in continuing education programs to assist the professional to maintain their license, certification, accreditation, or patent as court or healthcare interpreters. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) or Continuing Education (CE) refers to tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge, and experience interpreters gain, formally and informally, when they work, beyond the initial education or training. This ensures interpreters maintain and improve their knowledge and skills needed to provide their professional services in their field. CPD or CE prove that an interpreter stays up-to-date in their field of professional practice.

When an individual takes a workshop in-person, there are forms to be filled and signed, attendance records to prove the person arrived at the beginning of the webinar, and stayed until the end. Those granting continuing education credits review these records before awarding anything to the student. As an attendee, I have signed an attendance list where I state the times I arrived and left countless times. I have filed continuing education forms to prove I attended the workshop on many occasions. As a teacher, I have filed an attendance record with the certification entity, showing who was in the classroom, and I have submitted an abstract of what I intend to teach, including the learning objectives, every time I teach. The question is: How to verify that a student stayed for the entire session during an online workshop?

The well-known CEU Institute, which facilitates the continuing education process to many regulated industries and professions in the United States and Canada, such as the insurance and healthcare industries, and the legal profession, has created a method to verify the integrity of the continuing education process.

The first thing they require is that online teaching must be live and interactive. Recorded webinars will not qualify as there is no way to corroborate attendance or that the person stayed during the lesson. There should be a way for the instructor or somebody else to verify attendance at the beginning, end, and periodically throughout the course. This attendance could be checked from dedicated software where students will be logged out if they do not periodically provide a keystroke, mouse click, or something similar, to periodic question and answer sessions, surveys and polling, to an old-fashioned roll call several times during the webinar. Unless the CEU Institute receives confirmation of attendance tracking from a method like the ones above, no credits will be granted. This is a sample of the webinar affidavit a monitor has to file with the CEU Institute:

There should be credits awarded for online continuing education only when attendance and participation can de documented and proved, and there should be fewer credit hours when continuous professional development requirements are met online because of the attention issues, distraction factors, and mental exhaustion caused by distance learning through a computer I mentioned before. This would be a matter of debate, but as a starting point, I propose online continuing education be awarded 70% of the credits granted to an in-person educational session of the same subject and duration. Interpreting is a fiduciary profession, and there are high interests on the balance every time court or healthcare interpreters provide their service. We must do everything within our reach to make sure these professionals truly meet all continuing education requirements, not just on paper, not only by going through the motions, but by actually learning and practicing their skill. I now invite you to share your ideas about online continuing education, how to police it, and how to determine the credit hours it deserves.

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