We Say What You Mean

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Interpreter Training and E-learning: A Match Made in Heaven?

Conference Interpreter

Not too long ago, I was invited to give a talk at the 20th DG Interpretation Universities Conference in Brussels. This is an annual event that brings together interpreter trainers from around Europe and the world. The topic for this year’s conference was “Modern Learning Times – New Learning Needs”. My contribution was made remotely, by video feed (a first for this conference, if I’m not mistaken, which just goes to show that they are serious at DG Interpretation about adopting new technologies).

You can watch the recording of the webstream of the conference online. There is a recording for Day One and another one for Day Two (I spoke on Day Two and my bit starts around minute 55). There’s been some interest expressed about what I discussed in my talk, so I thought I would share the script with you here on our blog. Enjoy!

Interpreter Training and E-learning: A Match Made in Heaven?”
Hello everyone, and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts about e-learning and interpreter training. I can’t join you in Brussels, unfortunately, but DG Interpretation has kindly made arrangements for me to give my talk in the form of a video. My thanks in particular to Javier Hernandez Saseta and Cathy Pearson for making this possible.

I’ve intentionally chosen a controversial title for my talk on the trainer’s perspective on e-learning. In a moment I’ll explain the idea behind the title, but first let me just say that I am speaking here as more than just a lone freelance interpreter trainer. My comments reflect exchanges I have had with many trainers from all over the world, in a variety of settings, over the course of the past few years.

For some time now, I’ve been active in promoting e-learning among interpreter trainers. I have run a series of Training of Trainers seminars for AIIC on the topic of IT and blended learning – first for the Africa region; then in Paris; then for AIIC Asia; and most recently for AIIC Brazil.

Also, last summer Dick Fleming and I ran a Training of Trainers for the University of La Laguna in Tenerife that looked at both face-to-face and online classroom techniques.

And finally, I organized and moderated a panel discussion on the digital revolution in interpreter education at the FIT World Congress in Berlin in 2014.

Over the course of these events, I was able to talk to well over a hundred interpreter trainers from Maputo to Myanmar to Mexico, from Australia to Ohio to Oman. And there were two main messages that I gleaned from all of these exchanges…

Firstly, that more and more interpreter trainers all around the world are taking up e-learning and blended learning methods. Examples can be seen across the full spectrum of interpreter contexts – conference, community, sign language – and range from 100% online delivery, to blended approaches, to the use of tech-based support for face-to-face learning. They are also happening everywhere in the world, wherever you look.

The second thing that I’ve witnessed in just these past few years is the speed with which our thinking on the topic has become increasingly sophisticated. We are no longer talking at the theoretical level of what online learning might one day look like for interpreters. We are now grappling with practical matters related to implementation, access, community building, testing and assessment, and more. Fortunately, we no longer need to ask ourselves if it can be done. We’ve already proven it can. This means we can now focus on the important question, which is “how can we get it right?”.

… Which brings me back to my controversial title for today. Having spent a good amount of time learning about guidelines for effective virtual learning and comparing these guidelines against what is considered to be “best practice” for interpreter training, I’d argue that the two are, indeed, a match made in Heaven.

Let’s look at this list of best practice guidance for e-learning for a moment. What does effective e-learning consist of?

1) First and foremost, we have the famous concept of the “flipped classroom”. This idea that theory should be studied outside the classroom and that valuable student-trainer time should focus instead on practice. While nothing short of revolutionary in certain higher education circles, I’d argue that this is what good interpreting schools have been doing all along.

2) Then we have the recommendations that e-learning should be well-structured, and take an incremental approach: basically, that material should be clearly broken down into manageable chunks or objectives that are tackled one at a time. Once an online student has mastered one objective, they should be rewarded for that progress and then invited to move on to the next challenge.

Again, in many top conference interpreting schools, this is precisely the approach that is applied from day one – the “objectives-based approach” that breaks consecutive and simultaneous into a series of discrete skills to be trained separately, and moves students progressively through the various phases. Granted, we may need to work a little on the “rewarding effort” bit at times ;), but the underlying structure of a conference interpreter program respects this incremental approach that’s considered to be so important in e-learning.

3) Other golden rules of e-learning relate to participation, communication, interaction. Online students need to feel like they are actively engaging with a teacher, not just passively absorbing material from a screen. Again, we conference interpreter trainers, with our apprenticeship-based approach that has students working side-by-side with professionals to learn the skills they need, are way ahead of the game here.

I could go on, but unfortunately I haven’t got the time. In any case, one thing that has become clear to me over the past few years is that what works best in an online classroom also happens to be what works best in an interpreting classroom. If you doubt me, just imagine teaching interpreting the other way around – all theory, without any clear structure or objectives (just throwing students off the deep end to “do an interpretation”), and with no interaction at all. See what I mean?

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow trainers, there are a lot of very exciting initiatives currently happening in the interpreter training world that look to make the most of blended learning techniques. This Conference is one of them. I hope that my two main messages today – that there are already plenty of examples to follow and learn from out there, and, more importantly, that our tried and tested interpreter training techniques are already optimised for online delivery – will prove inspiring to all of us as we continue to explore opportunities. Thank you very much!


  1. thank you for sharing. we either get with the times and adapt or we fall behind.

  2. Hi there, First of all thank you so much for posting the information and honestly I had no idea regarding about the information that you have shared earlier before reading this post. 

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