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Speech Technology

August 2020 issue


At a time when Chromebooks are replacing textbooks and digital assistants are often more of a go-to resource than human instructors, it’s hardly a shock to learn that 95 percent of teachers employ technology in schools today, according to a recent Common Sense Media study.

But many are surprised at the speed and degree to which one branch of innovation has grown in the field of education: Speech technology now commands an increasingly larger voice in classrooms and homework zones. From smart speakers and voice dictation software to text-to-speech apps and cutting-edge devices used by the disabled, students and educators are turning to a growing array of impressive tools and resources that can significantly aid learning.

Ahmed Ali, principal engineer for the Arabic language technologies group at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, is one of many experts who notes that speech tech has made great strides in the education space in recent years.

“Today, there are three main speech technologies visible in the daily routines of many students: converting speech to text in the form of automatic speech recognition (ASR), converting text to speech, and extracting paralinguistic features from voice, such as emotion, age, and gender,” Ali says. “ASR, in particular, has opened up exciting possibilities across the age spectrum, enabling, for example, the digitizing of lectures to display spoken words as text in university classes.”

In classrooms with younger students, Google Home and Amazon Alexa have earned coveted spots as teaching aids.

“These smart speakers are increasingly utilized as educational resources to enhance the curriculum and provide relevant information like the news and weather,” says Mai Ling Chan, director of growth and achievement at Cognixion, a provider of artificial intelligence-powered assistive communication solutions. “Because they respond to all voice commands, students often have the opportunity to interact with their classroom smart speaker and are learning how to interact and control these new technologies.”

Matt Muldoon, North American president at ReadSpeaker, providers of the TextAid software for voice-enabled assignments, textbooks, and other tools for students, explains that accessibility and equal access in the classroom have been front-line issues in the education field for many years and a primary driver for speech in the classroom.

“Text-to-speech technology was traditionally used as an assistive technology tool for students with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and literacy challenges. But the pandemic has shown that students of all levels benefit from using the technology,” Muldoon says. “The COVID-19 pandemic sped up the adoption rate of speech technologies among the population more broadly. Though many educators were already using platforms like Zoom to teach students, speech technologies have been quickly integrated to enhance the online learning experience in recent months.”

Echoing those thoughts is Epic Special Education Staffing, a placement firm that connects speech and language pathologists and other therapists with school districts and students.

“Speech technology is becoming pervasive across grade levels,” they say. “For instance, in public schools, Individualized Education Program (IEP) students often have accommodations for speech-to-text via apps that enable you to answer questions aloud on video that can be rerecorded until the student likes the results. Meanwhile, in colleges, there are entire departments dedicated to such accommodations.”

Tools of the Trade

Speech tech apps, devices, and resources are more plentiful in general today, so it is not surprising that they are more pervasive and easily adaptable for use by students in the classroom and at home.

Major players in this realm include Nuance Communications’ Dragon line of voice dictation tools for education; Amazon Alexa skills like Ask My Class and ClassAlexa; Google Docs and its voice typing feature; Echo360, which transcribes text from classroom videos and creates content that’s easily referenceable and searchable; Don Johnston’s Co:Writer, which aids with writing via speech translation and recognition; Talk Technologies’ Steno SR, a private speech-to-text microphone that empowers students to compose text with their voice privately in the classroom and read that text back to them; Voice4U, an interactive communication app designed for autistic and English language learner students; and Claro Software’s ClaroRead, a text-to-speech app that caters to kids with attention and visual deficiencies.

Another standout is Otter for Education, a web app that provides speech-to-text transcription and is used on hundreds of university campuses around the world, including at UCLA, where the app provides live transcription and collaboration assistance to students with learning disabilities who need academic accommodations for taking notes.

Muldoon points out that many students today avail themselves of speech tech via free text-to-speech tools that can be installed as plug-ins on laptops.

“They listen to the text spoken aloud as they read it. And some of these tools include the ability to download content that can be listened to by students offline and at their convenience; simultaneous highlight, which highlights words and sentences in different colors; and screen/page masks, which present a horizontal bar that can be moved along with the reading to emphasize the lines that are being read while shading the rest of the screen to reduce distractions,” Muldoon says.

The benefits made possible by speech tech in the educational setting can be invaluable to teachers and pupils alike. Take the perks of speech recognition alone; according to Canada’s Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium and Alberta Education, it can help students do the following:

  • meet grade-level expectations and aid them in writing, including composing and editing;
  • switch between speaking and typing as needed;
  • augment legibility and written output;
  • create written output that more aptly represents their actual oral language aptitudes;
  • boost endurance and decrease fatigue by reducing writing by hand or keyboard; and
  • improve pronunciation by providing a less stressful setting, especially for English language learners.

Amazingly, first graders averaged more than a 97 percent accuracy rate on post-study reading tests after using speech recognition tools, according to a 2018 study by the Missouri College of Education.

“Speech recognition technology is supportive of the learner because it allows them to use personally, culturally relevant grammar,” said Elizabeth Baker, professor of literacy studies in the Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum at the Missouri College, in the study. “Children all have different backgrounds, and this technology allows them to learn to read while using their own frame of reference.”

Text-to-speech, meanwhile, can boost reading fluency, comprehension, and decoding and position children to independently perform better using appropriate grade-level tools and materials. And the ability to have their text spoken aloud on demand can generate crucial oral feedback that could help improve writing and composition.

“Leveraging text-to-speech tools helps students improve their grades and retain more information,” Muldoon says. “With 60 percent to 80 percent of students not disclosing their disability as they transition into post-secondary education, solutions like ReadSpeaker’s webReader and/or docReader help level the playing field for first-time online learners.”

Cindy Jiban, principal academic lead for NWEA, a research-based nonprofit that creates academic assessments for students, notes that speech tech is also improving early reading skill evaluation.

“The previous reading assessment practice in first- and second-grade classrooms was to have each student sit down with the teacher individually, one at a time, and read aloud,” she says, noting that these sessions typically took a week and rendered the teacher unavailable for actual teaching. “But now, particularly in the primary grades, oral reading assessment is rapidly shifting to capitalize on automatic speech scoring capabilities. Students read out loud into boom mics on headsets, making it feasible to capture and score individual readings. Today, the assessment takes half an hour total each season. And thanks to speech tech scoring, three weeks of reading instruction are saved.”

Supporting Those with Special Needs

Some students, of course, stand to reap greater speech tech benefits than others. These include the reading-challenged, those with difficulty putting their thoughts into text, those with dyslexia and attention disorders, IEP students who encounter hardship communicating, and the physically disabled.

“Imagine a student with a cleft palate or oral cancer using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to answer questions in class,” Epic Special Education Staffing says. “Picture a student with dexterity challenges using speech-to-text to answer homework or write essays. And ponder a student with auditory processing challenges who can listen to a story while following along with the text.”

Indeed, speech tech can bring a multitude of benefits to students with disabilities to ensure they have an equal education.

“Today’s text-to-speech tools read text out loud and may include features like page masking and highlighting tools to help students focus. Other features include a dictionary, diction and pronunciation guides, enlarged text, and dyslexia guides to help a wide variety of diverse students access and engage with the content,” Muldoon adds.

Sara Maria Hasbun, founder and managing director of Meridian Linguistics, a Hong Kong business that supplies speech technology companies with training data, seconds that sentiment.

“If a student is struggling to read because of dyslexia, low vision, or even blindness, they can at least keep up with the rest of their studies through text-to-speech functionalities,” she says. “Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, on the other hand, can benefit from speech-to-text technology. Lip reading is incredibly taxing, and the reality is that sign language interpreters are expensive and not always available. Speech technology can help fill that gap.”

Speech tech advancements can even help the more severely disabled—such as students with cerebral palsy, who might not be able to coordinate muscle movements—produce effective speech at the conversational level.

“Having access to an iPad with an app with eye-tracking technology, like Cognixion’s Speakprose, can increase her ability to formulate and produce sentence-level phrases,” Chan says. “The student can ask and answer questions in class and participate in activities that would be otherwise extremely difficult for her to physically execute.”

More than 90 percent of the world’s student population was impacted by school closures due to coronavirus. But if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that distance learning can be effective with the right resources, including speech tech, in place.

“The coronavirus has sped up the adoption of speech technology, mostly just because people are more willing to try something new,” Hasbun says. “Everyone has had to learn to integrate new technology into their lives, whether it’s Zoom or Google Meet for videoconferencing or Slack for office chitchat. So everyone is already in the right headspace to be accepting of technologies that have always been there but might have been more daunting before.”

However, with some level of distance learning likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, “it’s imperative that access to content, web accessibility, and individual learning continue to be top-of-mind issues for educators across the country,” Muldoon advises.

Ali believes the continued COVID-19 lockdown provides a “great opportunity for us to capitalize on the usage of voice. We can transcribe speech, learn different paralinguistic features, and even detect anxiety levels from speech using the right software. Imagine how a teacher can use such a platform to monitor the well-being of all students to facilitate and personalize their learning.”

Best Practices:

Yair Shapira, CEO and founder of AmplioSpeech, a provider of digital speech therapy to K-12 students, reminds educators and parents that the school schedule—as of this writing—remains uncertain for the fall and beyond.

“For the most vulnerable students, who struggle academically and often personally and socially at all times, the current times of turbulence might be disastrous,” Shapira says. “These children have already suffered compromised service since March, lack service during the summer, and might dramatically regress further if they do not receive intensive instruction tailored to their specific needs.”

Fortunately, technology can be a solution.

“We all need to be open to using tools like speech tech to minimize the disruptions and provide continuous, regular, and consistent services that will become a safe haven for fragile students regardless of the location of the student and staff,” Shapira continues. “Such services can only be provided if the entire therapy cycle is managed by a single platform, including resources, automatic documentation, reimbursement, self-practice, etc. Harnessing the power of AI in systems such as AmplioSpeech can not only accelerate students’ progress, it can also enable oversight, reduce workloads, and empower clinicians.”

But before investing in speech tech, schools and families should do their homework.

“Ideally, the speech technology solution they select will include features that position students to get the most out of using the technology,” Muldoon says.

School administrators also need to take a hard look at the costs and learning curve involved, too.

“If introducing the use of technology is a bit uncomfortable for some staff, don’t forget to show them how it can free up more time for those high-quality teacher-student interactions that really matter,” Jiban suggests.

It’s important as well to develop a school- or district-wide policy on appropriate technology use—one that addresses privacy concerns, decreases the risk of data breaches, and promotes open communication with and feedback from parents, experts agree.

While no one can forecast the future, it’s no stretch to say that speech tech is here to stay in the halls of academia as well as the home learning environment.

“To ensure that students have access to equal education, we’ll see more schools and universities adopting text-to-speech technologies. When offered in e-learning content, especially assessments, text-to-speech allows for users who may have learning disabilities to remain in the classroom and participate with the assessment as all others do, ensuring that they feel included in the classroom,” Muldoon says.

Also, he adds, “as universities prepare to offer more online courses, they’ll need to ensure that they’re offering the latest technologies that give students, regardless of learning level, the best learning experience possible.”

Fred Singer, founder and CEO of Echo360, believes ASR will become an essential technology in the classroom for note taking and search. Students can, for example, link an analog lecture to digital textbooks on a range of devices; Singer believes this will change the way students take notes and how they interact in class. “They won’t just get a recording of the class but all the keywords they need for sophisticated search,” he argues.

Hasbun is banking on speech technology continuing to increase accessibility for more students.

“Not just the disabled, but also people who speak other languages, or even just people whose eyes get tired staring at screens all day,” Hasbun says. “And I don’t think it will be a hard sell.”

But, for all that it can do in the classroom, speech technology will never replace the need for a flesh-and-blood teacher, Ali is convinced. “Instead, we’ll empower teachers to perform even better,” he says.

Erik J. Martin is a Chicago area-based freelance writer and public relations expert whose articles have been featured in AARP The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Costco Connection, and other publications. He often writes on topics related to real estate, business, technology, healthcare, insurance, and entertainment. He also publishes several blogs, including martinspiration.com and cineversegroup.com.