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Caroline Mehl and Raffi Grinberg direct the OpenMind Platform, an interactive tool to help individuals learn perspective taking and intellectual humility using principles from psychology. There are beta versions of OpenMind for use in corporations, organizations, and religious communities. You can check out OpenMind at openmindplatform.org and follow OpenMind on Twitter at @openmindusa.
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Chris Martin: My guests today are Caroline Mehl and Raffi Grinberg. They direct the OpenMind Project, which is associated with Heterodox Academy. It’s an educational project, which we will talk about in the show in greater detail, but briefly it’s an interactive tool that you can use yourself or deploy in a classroom to teach students about perspective taking and intellectual humility, using principles from psychology. There are beta versions for OpenMind as well for use in corporations, organizations and religious communities. So here are Caroline and Raffi. Welcome to the show.
Caroline Mehl: Hi Chris. Thanks for having us.
Raffi Grinberg: Hi. This is Raffi and we’re so happy to be here.
Chris Martin: It’s good to have you on the show. So we’re here to talk about the OpenMind initiative. Can you tell me a bit about how this initiative started?
Caroline Mehl: Sure. I can begin by telling you a little bit about my background and how I came to this project. I actually studied English in undergrad and began my career in private equity and pretty quickly into that experience I realized that that wasn’t what I was primarily interested in doing. I pretty quickly developed a deep interest in psychology, specifically positive and moral psychology.
I wasn’t really quite sure yet what I wanted to do with that. But I had this idea of wanting to translate that type of information into an applicable tool that could really help enhance people’s lives and help people communicate more effectively across differences.
That kind of thrust me on a journey that brought me to a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Israel that had a positive psychology component and then I moved to DC for another fellowship before starting my master’s degree at Oxford, where I was using the lenses of positive and moral psychology to explore aspects of Jewish thought and ritual.
So I began my interest in moral psychology really more from the religious perspective rather than a political perspective. But that’s how I first got in contact with Jonathan Haidt about three years ago now. We began speaking about our research interests. I really love Jon’s work, and his book The Righteous Mind really radically transformed the way that I saw the world and had so significantly impacted my thinking that I just knew that that was kind of the work that I wanted to focus on going forward.
So I was really lucky to begin this relationship with Jon around three years ago and he became a really great mentor to me, while I was doing my master’s and thinking through next steps. After I completed my master’s, he encouraged me to come back to New York and work for him right when Heterodox Academy was really getting started.
This was a year after it began as a blog. It was becoming more of a full organization around the fall of 2016. This was also right around the time of the 2016 presidential election. So I actually joined Heterodox Academy full-time I think the week after the presidential election. I was just struck by the state of political discourse and how polarization had become such a problem in our country and I felt really strongly that Jon’s research and his work in this field was really a significant answer to these questions.
That’s when we really started to begin to conceptualize what has become OpenMind and we started thinking about how we could figure out a way to translate that academic research into something that’s really engaging and accessible, and that could be widely disseminated to people, to teach them the psychology behind what divides us and how we can use that information to better understand ourselves, better understand others and use that to engage in a more civil and constructive way across differences.
So that’s how the project first began. We began thinking about this project and really the guiding questions to us or the guiding problems at the beginning were both the national polarization that we were seeing and how people were becoming so polarized, moving so far apart that it felt as though we really lost our common language and we were just kind of reaching an impasse in conversations.
But we were also growing more and more concerned about the state of civil discourse on college campuses and that this issue wasn’t just a national problem, but it really had a particular form on college campuses, specifically beginning in 2015 but really accelerating in 2016 and 2017.
We were thinking about creating something that could be a really useful tool, that could be used in individual college classrooms and incorporated into first-year experience programs and orientations. So that’s again how we thought more and more about how to create some type of online program. We started thinking about the content that we wanted to teach. We wanted to teach a range of key psychological concepts that would ease people into understanding the roots of their political biases, how they form decisions, how that can cause them to be self-righteous and blind to false reasoning. Then also explore what are the roots of our political positions and political opinions? And how can we use that knowledge to better understand others?
That’s how we began to form the content. But we realized we really needed to make this accessible and we needed to make it engaging, so that students would actually want to do it. We needed to create something that could be widely disseminated. That’s where Raffi came in. It was really a game-changer for us because he introduced us this great technology that allowed us to build OpenMind.
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah, and I can chime in there too. I came to OpenMind through Caroline actually. She’s the one who introduced me to Jonathan Haidt. Originally in undergrad, I majored in math and then like Caroline, I worked in the private sector as a management consultant for Bain. While I was in college and at Bain, sort of my favorite project I was working on was a math textbook that ended up being published and I realized my real passion was in education and specifically making education that’s scalable. So I went on to work for a couple of ed tech startups.
One was related to psychology and mental health. There’s a program called Uplift to use cognitive behavioral therapy online for people with depression. The other one was a product that I started called “Dollars Ed” to teach young people personal finance and throughout that time, I developed this method of turning content into something that is scalable by being interactive online. So it’s accessible by any number of people completely for free, in which they can interact with the program and their answers to questions impact what they see next.
They answer lots of questions. They have frequent interaction, and my research and work in the past has been about how do we translate best practices in the classroom. What makes a good teacher a good teacher into education that isn’t necessarily someone lecturing at you online, but using those same techniques to keep you engaged and reinforce the learning.
Chris Martin: So some of that was similar to maybe personality psychology.
Raffi Grinberg: The past projects I worked on were related to cognitive psychology and they were around the CBT and then personal finance and the educational aspect of those is related to research around basically best practices in education and translating some of what we can observe outside of the online world, into the online world to make things that are more sticky than the notoriously unsticky MOOCs.
Chris Martin: Right, yeah. Having been on a couple of MOOCs, I can vouch for your assessment of them. So going on to OpenMind itself, tell me a bit about the content on OpenMind as of the current version.
Caroline Mehl: Sure. So OpenMind is structured as a journey that brings people from point A to point B through five interactive steps that take between 10 and 20 minutes to complete. The first step really begins by asking the question, “What’s the value of viewpoint diversity? What’s the value of talking to people who we disagree with and might really think that their views are distasteful?”
We explore why that’s actually valuable for an individual. Then we move on to step two, in which we teach growth mindset as a mechanism for fostering intellectual humility.
We think intellectual humility is a really key ingredient to this for two reasons. The first is that it reminds people that we don’t all know everything and that there’s a lot to be learned from diverse perspectives. But then the second thing is it also prepares people to enter into disagreements with a different perspective, where it no longer has to be about proving that you’re right and winning the debate or the argument. It’s really more about being an opportunity to learn from the other perspective and explore and find growth through it.
The third step is a deeper dive into psychology where we explore the inner workings of the mind and we start to expose people to different cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, motivated reasoning that we often fall prey to and that affects our judgment and is the root of why two well-informed, well-intentioned people can look at the same set of facts and reach wildly different conclusions.
We then move on to step four, which is a primer in moral psychology. We begin by exploring the notion of the moral matrix, this idea that we all belong to a consensual hallucination and we perceive reality as objective. But in fact, it’s a subjective interpretation. Then we explore moral foundations theory and how we develop our moral and political intuitions, and how these differ across the political spectrum. And that’s really where we begin to foster mutual understanding and empathy for the other side, by showing what these differences are and how we can then use that understanding to really communicate much more powerfully with the other side by speaking in a language that resonates with the other side.
Then the fifth step is more practical where we weave together all of the concepts that we’ve covered in the first four steps and we translate them into really practical advice that people can then use to engage in constructive disagreement.
Raffi Grinberg: That’s a great overview of the structure. I can elaborate a little bit on that last step because that’s my personal favorite one. The techniques that we offer for constructive disagreement, half of them are focused on you, yourself and the other half are focused on the other person.
So when we talk about yourself, we help you learn some strategies actually from cognitive psychology for evaluating your instinctual thoughts, the ones that kind of come up and intend to make you defensive or react in negative ways, when you’re encountered with an opposing opinion. How do you manage those thoughts? How do you reframe them into a more positive or constructive way before you even respond?
Then the second half of techniques focused on the other person, a lot of it actually draws on the wisdom of Dale Carnegie who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People as well as some other psychologists who discuss how to deal with other people’s intuitive responses. Given that we know that people tend to react in certain ways – might do their judging and emoting first and then thinking later – what are some methods for dealing with that.
There are some pretty simple and practical things that we want the user to come away with, like instead of saying the words “You’re wrong,” which is a typical way to open an argument, instead to turn it into a constructive disagreement by just saying “that’s interesting. Why do you believe that?”
I’ve seen the power of this first hand. I actually did a version of OpenMind in my class at Boston College yesterday and some students were commenting on this exactly, that they noticed at first instinct just a sort of charge into battle and try to prove the other person wrong. They were explicitly told instead just to ask questions. Your goal isn’t to win or to look smart, as Caroline mentioned, as the focus point of other steps. But instead, your goal is to learn from the other person, understand their viewpoint better, which in the long term will help you get closer to understanding what the truth is as it’s sort of a joint effort.
Chris Martin: You know, when you’re talking about that, it reminds me of John Gottman’s work on healthy relationships. That’s romantic relationships and marriages and how he talks about, among other things, starting – I can’t remember the exact way he phrases it, but starting softly. So if you need to dispute something, trying to start in the weakest sort of way possible, not being un-assertive, but just not coming out and saying, “You’re wrong,” or “This is terrible.”
I actually use that – so when I used to teach happiness, I used to put the lessons about relationships and the lesson about organizations back to back because dealing with romantic relationships is in some ways just dealing like – it’s similar to dealing with any human relationship and one of the things you have to figure out is how to work out disputes. I worry that this doesn’t leave the whole relationship to deteriorate.
So it’s interesting that there’s this overlap between John Gottman’s work from the last couple of decades and Dale Carnegie’s work from, I don’t know, 60, 70 years ago.
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah. That’s super interesting and I think it’s exactly right and we talk about sort of that first step similarly in the conversation of being less about your first reaction, your instinct to prove yourself right and more just about opening it up and again, the focus being on, “What can I learn from the other person?”
So I can’t speak to every romantic relationship out there. But I will say that my wife says that our communication skills have gotten better since I started working on OpenMind. So we’ve gotten one endorsement there.
Chris Martin: All right. Well, I should interview your wife to see if she concurs.
Chris Martin: Moving on to the issue of trustworthy versus untrustworthy news sources. Like you have college debates where students in a classroom might be talking to another. But then you get out into the real world and you have the problem of fake news and that’s on everyone’s mind now because it’s a buzzword. But really propaganda has been around for a long time. We’ve got the Rupert Murdoch owned media, which are essentially propaganda channels and other countries of the world. You’ve got other types of very obvious propaganda. So there are sources of information that are unreliable, that you have people being paid to reach certain conclusions in the research, even people who are “scientists” with PhDs.
So how do you work on this issue of people being judicious about what media or what information to trust and what not to trust and how to tell the difference?
Caroline Mehl: Chris, that’s a great question and we’re just beginning to think about how OpenMind can really address fake news and I think that there’s another element there that OpenMind speaks to, which is the notion of fake news really tapping into our human psychology.
There was this recent study done by scientists at MIT that explored the nature of fake news and they discovered that fake news is actually much more likely to be spread and disseminated through humans rather than bots.
The hypothesis is that humans are more likely to spread fake news because it really is tapping into our human psychology by exposing us to news that is more novel, negative and also really arouses emotions.
So that’s an element that we think OpenMind is a really novel solution for, because if these problems are so inherently a result of our specific human psychology, we think that empowering people through psychology is the best antidote for it.
A real driver in that is again, this emotional arousal component. So what we believe OpenMind does is it really reduces cross-partisan hostility and it kind of brings down that temperature and helps people be more cognizant of that and resistant to it. But then there’s also, as you mentioned, the critical faculty level of assessing the nature of the news and discerning whether or not news is real or fake.
Raffi, I know that you really enjoy speaking about critical reasoning. So you can answer that side.
Raffi Grinberg: That’s a great answer, Caroline, and that’s exactly what we’re working on. On the individual level, we think that fake news will continue to spread as long as the individual people are prone to the cognitive biases that everyone is born with. They would be more likely to look for information that confirms their side of things. You know, the confirmation bias and more likely to dismiss your counterarguments for information that might disconfirm their existing world view.
We’ve noticed a really cool thing, which is as soon as people are just taught about this bias, they start to notice it more in their own thinking and their own behavior and they’re more likely to seek out alternative viewpoints.
There are a lot of promising other organizations out there. They’re starting to think of ways to combat fake news, to enable people to sign up for services, where they can see the other side of an issue. They can get a newsletter that sort of breaks out of their bubble or their echo chamber. But of course the individual people need to be motivated to do that in the first place and that’s where we think OpenMind can have the real power of understanding why you’re prone to this and motivating you to get outside of it.
Chris Martin: Is there going to be any kind of element that is more specific and says these media sources tend to generally be trustworthy? They tend to employ fact checkers and these other sources don’t?
Caroline Mehl: We don’t do that so explicitly yet. But going back to how OpenMind is structured, as I mentioned, there’s a core five-step component. But what we’re planning to do in the future is build out additional modules that you can stack on top of them, that do a deep dive on specific issues. Social media is really a key concern that a lot of people are talking about.
So that’s one of the modules that we plan to develop that will really get into the specifics of what you’re describing.
Chris Martin: So on that topic, what are the other enhancements that are coming up in the next couple of years?
Caroline Mehl: Sure, a couple of years…We have a lot on the agenda. We’re thinking right now about OpenMind in terms of improving and increasing the content, and also increasing our rigor in terms of measurement.
In terms of the content, we are constantly responding to feedback that we’re receiving from our users and really incorporating that into the core content to revise it and make it more and more effective. But we’re also moving now more to really bringing theory to practice and developing this kind of short behavioral interventions that we can include within the core content that will motivate people to actually bring the concepts, the learning in OpenMind, to their behavior in daily life. So that it will become kind of habitual and that there will be a lasting staying power to the effects of OpenMind.
But then beyond that, as I mentioned, we’re also planning to develop these add-on modules that will do a deep-dive in specific issues. So one is social media. Another one is really doing a deeper dive and exploring the roots of political differences.
Another topic that we’re thinking a lot about is diversity, in general and how OpenMind can lay the foundation for those more difficult conversations around diversity. Another issue that we’re thinking a lot about is interfaith dialogue and how OpenMind can lay the foundation for that.
Then beyond the issue areas, we’re also thinking about developing modules that explore different cognitive techniques. So one is critical thinking. Another one is creativity and design thinking. Another is exploring more cognitive distortions and how we can dispel these cognitive distortions.
But then Raffi, do you want to speak to what we’re planning on doing on the research end?
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah, absolutely. I can sort of echo your initial reaction of thinking about this on the timescale of years because we’ve been thinking about on the timeframe of months. We’ve been moving pretty fast and we’ve actually been blown away by how fast things have been happening and how widespread and the response of the interest has been.
Like we launched OpenMind in November with a test run of a bunch of professors who were using it in their classroom. Then we made the bigger version publicly available only a couple of months ago. But so far since the beginning, we’ve had over 2700 users complete at least one step on this journey and we’ve seen so much more interest coming to us from organizations, from college classrooms, high school classrooms, individual users, even some corporations.
So we’re doing as much as we can to keep up with the demand and constantly improve things based on the data like Caroline said. Part of that improvement comes on the side of the assessment.
So what we currently do to measure the impact of OpenMind is we have a psychometric assessment that asks a series of questions, trying to understand the user’s attitude when it comes to intellectual humility, warmth towards the other side, openness to diverse viewpoints. We ask these questions both before they start the app and after they complete the five-step journey in the app.
We’ve already begun noticing some interesting changes. But one thing we’re working on is improving the quality of that psychometric assessment. So we recently brought on Matt Motyl, our new research director to improve the quality of the assessment and make sure it’s rigorous and also to think creatively about other ways that we can assess the impact.
So instead of just asking users to self-report, report their own attitudes, which of course is prone to certain difficulties, like people might inflate their positive qualities, we can actually measure things through creative kinds of tests. Like before you use the app, what do you think of this opposing argument? And then see if your reaction is different once you complete the app.
We’re also thinking about using in the future some sophisticated language processing techniques to analyze how people write responses to questions. Are these using more or less vitriol or more or fewer different logical errors or cognitive biases before or after they complete the app?
So I guess the takeaway from all this is I would emphasize that right now, we’ve seen some really promising effects coming out of this initial data. But the quality of how we assess the data is going to be improving over time, just like the app itself.
Chris Martin: Yeah. Another interesting thing that might be worth trying if you’ve got a lot of people within the same university or the same geographical area working on the app is getting observers, classroom observers to observe the classroom on a first day of class versus the post-intervention phase. I’m doing some work related to that myself at Georgia Tech and I’m looking at these methodologies and they seem pretty cool because you don’t have to worry about self-report and the biases in self-report. Is Matt working on any other initiatives as well other than the psychometrics?
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah. Well, to your point actually, that’s a great idea and something we definitely want to do. We saw that there were so many different ideas of how to measure effect in so many different promising areas where OpenMind might have an effect. But it’s sort of more than we can do, even with Matt joining the team.
So we actually put out a call for proposals, so that other researchers who are PhDs or even full professors can conduct their own research on OpenMind, people who are in the field of psychology but also even sociology and economics and we’ve received I think 12 proposals already that we’re starting to look through, which is really exciting. So it basically means that OpenMind is expanding beyond the realm of our little team and other people are going to be using it and studying it for their own research.
Chris Martin: Do you want to add anything, Caroline?
Caroline Mehl: Yeah. I would also add that another research method that we’re exploring is looking at pre-post language on social media and behavior on social media and whether using OpenMind changes people’s interest in fake news, their willingness to spread fake news and also just kind of the civility of their discourse online.
Chris Martin: I think the fact that you can draw data from social media and run it through automated language analyses is pretty cool and we’ve seen more papers using that methodology recently. So lastly, I just wanted to talk about the professors who are using it. I know you’ve got a lot of professors using it. How are they learning it? What have you heard from them in terms of things they like and things they want to improve?
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah. So, so far, OpenMind is being used or planning to be used in over a hundred different college classrooms and somewhere between 10 and 20 high school classrooms just in this current academic year, which is really exciting. The response has been for the most part very positive. Like a lot of professors basically tell us they want the same thing but more of it, right? They want more additional modules added to OpenMind. They want more creative ways that they can assess it or follow up on the materials in their classrooms. So one of the big things that we’re working on right now is adding an in-person component to OpenMind, in addition to just the online platform.
We currently have a version of this, what we call the OpenMind workshop, that a professor can use with their class after they’ve done the assignment on their computer or on their phone. I did a version of this workshop in my class yesterday like I mentioned. But we’re working right now on vastly fleshing out those workshop materials and coming up with other lesson plans and ideas of ways that instructors can incorporate the key teachings of OpenMind from all the different areas of psychology that we cover, not just into one day of the classroom but into many days over the course of their semester.
So I would say that’s sort of the main point of feedback we’ve gotten from the professors is they want more of that, more ways to integrate OpenMind and one of the other things we’re doing in response is what Caroline actually already mentioned about behavioral interventions, that we want OpenMind not to just be a one-time educational activity, but an ongoing behavior changer.
We’ve seen that behavior change is complicated, right? There’s a whole world of research and literature on it. But one of the key components beyond just the learning and understanding aspect and even the motivation is actually integrating things as habits.
So we’re building a tool that’s going to be called the Habit Builder, in which users can pick some of these what we call “life hacks” that we offer in OpenMind, choose which ones they want to incorporate as habits into their own lives and then use somewhere between 10 and 15 different evidence-based techniques for turning them into habits over the course or their semester or longer.
Caroline Mehl: I just want to add to that, that we really are seeking to catalyze cultural change and like Raffi said, we don’t want this to just be a standalone assignment. We want it to become a part of the culture and a part of the discourse and that’s really also why we’re focusing now on being incorporated into first-year experience programs or orientation programs, because our goal is to really equip an entire community with this shared language and practices that they can all refer back to over the course of the year and over the course of their college experience.
If you have an entire student body that has the same set of words or vocabulary that they use when they’re encountering conflict or when they reach a disagreement, and they also – they have practiced the same kind of behavioral techniques, then it can really change the culture and set a more positive tone for the entire college.
Chris Martin: When it comes to habits, were you talking about the types of habits you were talking about earlier, like the Dale Carnegie principles or is it something different?
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah, that’s part of them. So we currently have in the platform is a set of life hacks. We call them ways to hack your life to improve it based on what we teach and those are pretty simple and straightforward. So to give an example, one of the ones that’s based in Dale Carnegie’s work that I mentioned is instead of saying you’re wrong to someone, just say, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”
Another example is in order to help foster more intellectual humility and related to growth mindset, to add the word “yet” when you say that there’s something you can’t do. So I don’t know how to solve this problem yet. Those are pretty simple and straightforward things to do one time. But in order to actually incorporate them as part of your – your sort of daily being takes a lot more work and takes a lot of reminders.
So that’s where we’re incorporating some of that behavioral research to build the habits. So some of the techniques that we’re using range from pretty straightforward, things like you want to give yourself an incentive. So go and pick out a reward that you can give yourself once you’ve done this X number of times to things that are a little bit more subtle in the ways in which we can use the technology to give and serve these reminders to people.
Chris Martin: Yeah. You know what might be interesting is if you’re focusing on habits is to do a podcast, one with a fixed number of episodes, kind of like Serial on NPR except about habits rather than murder. Maybe 10 episodes, one about each habit and then in the podcast because a lot of people – I mean a lot of college students and other people will listen to a podcast while they’re driving or working out and if you don’t want people to try and download the tool, that’s another – I mean it doesn’t hurt to try. It’s what I’m saying.
Caroline Mehl: Yeah, that’s a good idea
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea. I’m also a fan of audio and podcasts in general, such as this one. But I think what we’ve been focusing on with OpenMind up until now is the interactive element that you can get from the online learning. So the program that we have that you can use on your phone or your computer isn’t just about reading and seeing visuals, but also responding and that responding is key to reinforce the learning and help people really integrate it rather than just passively listening, occasionally zoning out and never having that chance to answer review questions that really hammered into your brain.
Chris Martin: That’s a good point. Anyway, it looks like it’s about time to wrap up. Do either of you have any closing thoughts?
Raffi Grinberg: Yeah, Chris. We’re both – and all of us at the OpenMind team – are extremely excited about where this is going and the potential that it has. I, like Caroline, have always been interested in what we can do to improve the health of our democracy and just to zoom out, I see it as – there are two necessary elements that we all need, right? We all need to be able to live among a diversity of people, not just diversity in terms of our appearances, but in addition, diversity of how we think. And we need to be able to learn from each other, and not just passively live as neighbors and be OK with our differences, but actually make positive use of those differences. I think the solution to both those things, the way to help people do both of those things, right? To live together and to learn from each other is to learn how to have these conversations.
Then part of the conversations are things that might be easy and come naturally to some people and for other people, they’re pretty difficult and things they’ve never tried before. Part of that is just that they’ve never learned these skills. So we think that we can empower people, individuals one at a time in the classroom – or even on their own if they’re adult ongoing learners – with the knowledge from psychology and the skills from psychology that they need to do those things, to engage in those conversations, and therefore be more understanding and better contributing citizens of democracy. And that change rapidly scales when we do it on the level of an entire classroom or even thinking to the future on the level of an entire college campus or the level of an entire organization of working adults. That we’re giving people not only the individual skillsets but also the communal language they need.
So our goal is that one day, in the far, far future, OpenMind won’t even be necessary because everyone will know this stuff and everyone will be using these things on a day to day basis. So we can only hope.
Chris Martin: That’s a noble goal but it sounds like you will be in business for a while. All right. Caroline, did you have anything to add or –?
Caroline Mehl: No. I think that Raffi summed it up beautifully. Thank you so much again, Chris. We really enjoyed speaking with you.
Chris Martin: Thank you and once again for our listeners, if anyone wants to try out OpenMind, the URL is www.OpenMindPlatform.org. Caroline and Raffi, thanks for coming on the show and maybe we will do a follow-up a year from now to see what has been enhanced and where things are going.
Caroline Mehl: That would be great. Thanks so much, Chris.
Raffi Grinberg: Sounds good. Thank you.
Chris Martin: All right. Take care.
Raffi Grinberg: Bye.
Chris Martin: Bye.
Caroline Mehl: Bye.
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Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com