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Transkribus in Education

Transkribus has come a long way since its founding days at the University of Innsbruck and remains closely connected to the education sector to this day.

As an AI-powered text recognition tool, Transkribus is thrilled to be working with the next generation of researchers by making historical documents more accessible. Transkribus helps to make research projects more efficient and offers various functions for learning how to read and transcribe manuscripts. This way, Transkribus helps teachers to engage future researchers and students to transcribe their documents more easily.

In this article, we will first explore the benefits of Transkribus in an educational setting, and then look at how Transkribus can be used in teaching and learning to make working with historical documents easier and more exciting.  This article will also look at how students use the platform and how Transkribus can help you as a teacher or student with research projects.

How is Transkribus used in education?

Transkribus works with universities, libraries and archives to digitise and preserve historical and handwritten documents. Storing these documents in a digital format turns them into searchable files, making them easier for students and teachers to access, read and analyse.
As an increasing number of universities recognise the benefits of a software like Transkribus, they are offering workshops and seminars on using Transkribus for research and textual analysis.

MA-History seminar on War Letters. © Andrew Pfannkuche / Nina Janz

Workshops 

One such workshop about Transkribus in the Classroom was organised by the University of Freiburg in collaboration with the University of Basel in 2019. The aim of their workshop was to show students at the Bachelor, Master and PHD levels how to explore the digital side of history without having any programming skills or expensive software. Using the Transkribus Scantent and Scan App, they worked on manuscripts written in German Kurrent from around 1800 and a Gothic bookhand from the late 15th century, with positive feedback from students and teachers alike.

Nina Janz from the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg organised a student project on war letters from World War II. During the practical sessions in spring 2022, the students used the Transkribus web platform to digitise and transcribe the letters written in German and French. Through this project, Nina Janz was able to teach them about digital tools and in addition, how to develop a critical approach to sources.  With the transcribed material available to students, they can develop and improve their research skills.

Winter and Summer School 

Also in 2022, on the initiative of Jan Odstrčilík of the Institute of Medieval Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, a group of researchers from universities across Europe and the USA organised the Academy’s first HTR Winter School. Aimed at postgraduate students, it was open to anyone interested in handwritten text recognition of medieval manuscripts. The goal of the HTR Winter School was to show participants in an interactive way how to digitise and analyse manuscripts using Transkribus. The course itself was held in a hybrid format, with both virtual sessions and a face-to-face workshop. The outcome of the workshop? Their own public text recognition model for Old Czech Handwriting with spaces and Old Czech Handwriting without spaces.

This July, the Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel, in cooperation with the Research Centre for Hanseatic and Baltic History (FGHO), is organising a summer school on Digital History. One of the focal points of the workshop will be the use of Transkribus text recognition software for historical texts. Since hands-on experience is an important part of learning, the summer school will teach participants to work with Transkribus on concrete material in order to understand how to work with digital tools in historical research.

Jan Odstrčilík’s Transkribus Tip

Answering questions and explaining the different editing or training options can be very time-consuming. Jan Odstrčilík recommends allowing plenty of time for the practice part of the workshop where students and other workshop participants can try out the different features of Transkribus.

Teaching the first Transkribus Seminar

Similarly to Jan Odstrčilík, Robert Klugseder, a musicologist and long-time Transkribus user and workshop expert, realised that the two or three workshop sessions per semester were simply not enough to cover the high demand and many questions from his students. For this reason, he has set up the first seminar to teach students how to use Transkribus at the University of Vienna this summer semester of 2023.

Transkribus User Conference 

Engaging Students with Transkribus

The students attending his course all come from different disciplinary backgrounds and are often inexperienced in reading old manuscripts and their interest in using Transkribus to analyse printed or handwritten text is therefore very high. When teaching about Transkribus, it is important to Klugseder that the students have what he calls an “aha” moment. This light bulb moment, when students read text that previously seemed illegible to them, can be very captivating. And when you show students how illegible text is transformed into legible text by using the text recognition models, that’s what motivates them to work with historical documents.

Transkribus as a Research and Study Tool

In the seminar, Klugseder aims to show students how to use and train the Transkribus text recognition models as useful tools in their research and studies. One time, when a text recognition model was trained to automatically expand Latin abbreviations, Klugseder says the students felt as if Transkribus was almost understanding the abbreviations and grammar itself.  Naturally, the platform is not able to understand language in the same way as humans – but this shows how well a well-trained model can work!

What is particularly great, explains Robert Klugseder, is not only the text training but also the layout training possibilities. Working with documents that have different layouts instead of just continuous text can be a challenge for text recognition models alone. He tells us that using Transkribus’ P2PaLA layout training can even be fun to work on with students, and with enough training material, the results can become quite good.

Talking to Robert Klugseder, he acknowledges the concerns about AI-powered text recognition platforms but is a firm believer in the benefits of Transkribus. Contrary to fears, Transkribus does not replace the work of human researchers, it enhances it. The key, he says, is not to be afraid of artificial intelligence when used properly, but to embrace it and acknowledge it, or risk being left behind.

New Zealand Alpine Journal No. 12 (1922) , via New Zealand Alpine Club

Robert Klugseder’s Trankribus Tip:

When showing Transkribus to beginners, it is best not to show complex handwriting in the first step, but to use printed material! The automatic transcription of handwriting like Kurrent looks great, but with printed material that is easier to read, the hurdle to start transcribing historical documents becomes easier to overcome.

At Transkribus, we have recognised the educational potential of our platform to not only transcribe but also teach transcription and have therefore developed Transkribus Learn. On the Transkribus Learn platform, teachers can engage students and people interested in historical documents to learn how to read and transcribe handwriting or improve their skills, one exercise at a time

Transkribus for students 

From a student’s perspective, workshops and lectures like Robert Klugseder’s are a great way to learn how to approach working with historical documents. For research projects, Transkribus provides help in achieving research goals quickly and accurately.

Learning to transcribe with Transkribus

As mentioned above, students from different disciplines are confronted with historical documents, so reading old handwriting such as Kurrent is often a challenge. Using Transkribus can be useful for transcribing material, and even for learning how to read and transcribe yourself.

In several cases, Robert Klugseder has seen students learning to read Kurrent quite quickly with the help of Transkribus. By closely examining the handwriting and comparing it to the correct transcription, students gain a better understanding of how different letters are written. This in turn improves their ability to recognise and decipher similar handwriting on their own. Klugseder sees this as an educational opportunity for students that should not be underestimated.

Student Research with Transkribus

Transkribus is also a valuable tool for students who are more advanced in their studies and research and often have to work with large amounts of material. Since it is not always possible to do this alone, options such as crowd-sourcing can be a good option. However, this costs time and money and is therefore not the best option for graduate students or students without academic funding. In such cases, Transkribus can fill the gap and provide a more attainable and efficient solution.

Precisely for this reason, Jessica Cook used Transkribus for her PhD project on Ada Lovelace. Transkribus allowed her to process and analyse a large number of manuscripts and pages. By training a model to suit the requirements, the automatic text recognition results took the project a big step forward.  Especially helpful for Jessica Cook was the search option of Transkribus, where you can look for keywords within the digitised and transcribed documents on the platform. “By training AI models to perform much of the actual transcription work, I can use the keyword search feature to find material specific to my immediate dissertation research goals, instead of relying on guesswork for where relevant material might be located.”

Jessica Cook’s Transkribus Tip 

Transkribus has a wide range of resources, such as the Help Center to help users understand the platform and make the most of its many features. Jessica Cook strongly recommends that newcomers to Transkribus use these resources as a starting point.

Library of the University of Vienna. © Griffindor / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Supporting future researchers

Transkribus has become a valuable tool in education, providing greater access to historical documents and expanding research opportunities. By digitising and preserving manuscripts, Transkribus has made knowledge more accessible and enabled more people to explore these valuable resources. Collaborations, workshops, seminars and similar initiatives can further empower both educators and learners. 

We believe that the future of research is in the hands of teachers and students, which is why we want to support and empower both educators and learners. Through the Transkribus Scholarship Programme, we provide free credits for specific research projects to further encourage research in historical documents, so far Transkribus has awarded scholarships in over 50 countries. Join Jessica Cook and other research projects and apply for the Transkribus Scholarship Programme on our website.

Thumbnail Image: Jacob the Palmer. © William of Nottingham / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

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