Educators Weigh in on Changes Taking Place in Speech-to-Text Industry

As the speech-to-text industry navigates the disruption taking place within the marketplace—the growing shortage of stenographers along with the advancement and acceptance of non-stenographic technologies—a massive challenge looms. That challenge is to recruit and train a qualified workforce of court reporters that is using multiple technologies to capture the legal record and convert it to text. Residing at the intersection of education and professional practice—dealing directly with students, their eventual employers, and practitioners—these educators carry a unique perspective on the realities of the industry.

We sat down with Marybeth Everhart of Realtime Coach and Kelly Moranz of Tri-C Community College to talk about the state of speech-to-text education.

There’s a lot of rhetoric out there about speech-to-text technologies, particularly among some practitioners. What are common misunderstandings or fallacies that you encounter?

Everhart: The most common is the assumption that digital or electronic reporters are simply “button pushers.” While there are, no doubt, settings where the record button is being pushed and the individual walks away or has other roles within the proceedings, that is certainly not always the case. In the deposition environment, in particular, digital reporters are being trained to accurately capture the record just as steno and voice reporters are. Their job is to monitor—called “confidence monitoring”—the proceedings from start to finish, confirm a quality recording, identify speakers, insert parentheticals, and so on. The higher the quality of the recording, the faster and more accurate the final transcript can be delivered, just as with a steno or voice reporter.

Moranz: Some steno writers don’t think that voice writers can create a realtime record. Those steno writers appear to be under the impression that voice writers audibly repeat what they are hearing and then listen to those captured words and use a QWERTY keyboard and word-processing software to create the transcript without the benefit of a computer-assisted translation software. Some are not aware that training programs hold their voice writers to the same standards outlined by NCRA.

There are steno writers, and voice writers as well, who don’t think that digital reporters can accurately and reliably capture the conversations of speakers.  Some steno writers and voice writers don’t think that the digital reporter is using any kind of computer-assisted transcription program to aid in the preparation of a transcript. Others suggest that voice writers and digital reporters don’t have the capability to mark exhibits, swear witnesses, interrupt, or ask for clarification when something was not heard well. But they not only have the capability but do so as competently as a steno writer handles such situations.

You have a good amount of interaction with employers of court reporters. In what ways are those conversations different than they were five or ten years ago? How are their questions or requests different than in the past?

Everhart: The conversations have changed drastically. Five or 10 years ago, the topic of digital reporters would not have come up in conversation, but now it’s broached in nearly every conversation I have with both firm owners and schools. Firm owners are looking for ways to cover their book and schools are seeking ways to remain relevant in the industry, and in some cases to simply keep their doors open. I’m regularly asked by firms and schools how to best train digital reporters and ensure accurate transcriptions.

Moranz: They are broadening their horizons beyond hiring steno only. If they’re not yet ready to take the step to hire a voice writer, they’re at least willing to see a demonstration of the capabilities.

As you look at various technologies for capturing and converting the spoken word to text, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Everhart: One strength all methodologies share is, if adequately trained, steno, voice, and digital are all capable of capturing an accurate record, which is the primary mission. Just like a stenotype reporter, if a voice or digital reporter doesn’t hear or understand something said in a proceeding, he or she must interject to preserve the record.  We’ve all heard stories of stenographers who relied on audiosync to fill in their blanks, only to discover that the audio didn’t hear the word or phrase any better than he or she did. There’s nothing magical about any of this technology. Audio recordings are no better at understanding mumblings, mispronunciations, or accents than the human ear. People are still needed to ensure the accurate capture of the spoken word, regardless of the capturing methodology.

The primary weakness of steno is the required training time, which has only gotten longer in many cases. The voice training runway is shorter, and the digital reporter training shorter still, making that a strength for those two methodologies. The primary weakness of voice and digital is they are not readily accepted in all parts of the country, making them more challenging to introduce. That said, I think the primary resistance comes from within, not the legal community as a whole. Ultimately, a record needs to be captured and produced, and attorneys, judges, and litigants will not put their lives and businesses on hold while we try to resolve the stenotype reporter shortage. Life will go on, with or without us.

The well-documented stenographer shortage is at least 6,000 today and will grow to be more than 11,000 by 2023. It’s an unprecedented challenge for this industry to fill that type of workforce gap. What are the biggest ways that speech-to-text education and training will need to adapt to meet the challenge?

Everhart: Two things:  Education and certification.  Schools need to ramp up their existing steno programs, and voice if they already offer it, and add voice and digital if they do not already exist in their institutions. Wherever certifications are required, at the national or state levels, those bodies will need to be able to test large numbers of candidates quickly and frequently.

Moranz: Educational institutions must modify their course offerings to permit training of the three tracks. Training needs to be provided in the online environment to best reach the greatest number of potential students.

Is there an untapped role for stenography students who can’t get to 180 or 200wpm? If so, what is it?

Everhart: Absolutely!  As schools look to add digital reporter training, they should consider reaching out to past (steno) students who left their programs because they couldn’t reach high speeds. Those students are already familiar with producing transcripts, procedures, and have likely completed most of the academic courses. They could easily transition into digital reporting and/or transcription. There’s also a great opportunity for exiting steno or voice reporters close to retirement, or those who want to work from home, or have experienced injuries that limit or prevent their continued work in the field.

Moranz: The steno writer who is has achieved 200 wpm may be able to write an event on his/her steno machine with the assistance of speech recognition technology and audio sync and then use the steno notes and those extra features to prepare transcripts.  Perhaps this can be in situations where “less-than-verbatim” is acceptable or a realtime feed is not going to be available.

Utilizing steno-writing skills at 180 or 200 words per minute in creating transcripts for the already digitally recorded proceedings that exist as well as for those that will be created is another avenue of employment for those individuals.  The person creating transcripts at a rate of 180 or 200 wpm far exceeds the ability of a traditional transcriptionist working from a QWERTY keyboard to complete work in a timely and efficient manner.

As more and more digital recording enters the market, what are the biggest lessons that a growing population of digital reporters and transcribers can learn from their stenographer and voice writer counterparts? 

Everhart: The importance of keeping current with, and embracing, technology is the biggest take-away.  CAT software is a very, very powerful tool, yet the average steno or voice reporter knows just a small part of its features and capabilities. There are so many ways to use software to improve the quality of the output, move all steno reporters to realtime, and reduce the reporters’ workload at the same time.

Moranz: I think the digital reporting student should be enrolled in instruction that provides comprehensive training that emulates the formal education that has been created in correlation to national certification and leads to professional certification just as steno training has had in place for so long.  The digital reporter must have thorough knowledge of the technology and the role of the court reporter with regard to professionalism, personal interactions, and the marking and safekeeping of exhibits, handling interruptions, swearing in witnesses, reading back, and preparing an excellent transcript.

Let’s entertain an absurd question: If speech-to-text education was an entirely new concept and you were to design an education and training program built around the realities of today’s marketplace, what would it look like?

Everhart: I have thought a lot about this and have an approach I would take if I had nothing but time to create a new reporter training program from scratch. That said, there’s no need for anyone to entertain the notion of revamping reporter training until the certification process is modified. We currently have professional steno reporters using available technologies to produce their transcripts, yet we don’t afford steno students the same benefit. Until that changes, we’ll still have the bottleneck at high speeds and passing certifications in order to work. The goal should be to get students through a court reporter curriculum quickly and into an on-the-job training program so they’re earning and learning.

Moranz: Educational opportunities in all three tracks – there’s room for all.

What is a question that no one is asking about the future of the industry that we should be asking? 

Everhart: What happens to steno and voice reporters if and when ASR is real-time capable?

Moranz: How can we unite to fill the gaps and embrace each of the three available technologies instead of pitting one technology against another?