Speech in Education

Speech-enabled applications and hardware are increasingly finding their way into the classroom and into the offices of educators at all levels of education, but educational applications still represent a small, though growing, segment of the speech technology market, according to industry analysts.

According to Peter Ryan, analyst for London-based Datamonitor, speech technologies derived from education were 3.8 percent in 2004, a figure that is expected to grow to 9.7 percent by 2007. The main areas in which speech technology is used today are course education, grade reporting and fee payment because all of these areas are easy to automate. Datamonitor also expects those to be the biggest areas of growth in the next few years.

Another area for growth could be audio mining, according to Elka Popova, research manager, IP communications and enterprise solutions for Frost and Sullivan, San Antonio, Texas. Already used in radio and television, audio mining would enable students and faculty to record lectures, then to search for pertinent information by keywords or phrases.

“This is a little ‘nitchy’ in the global scheme of things, but I expect it to be deployed on a limited scale in the next five to six years,” Popova said.

“More far-reaching solutions will increase the use of speech-enabled IVRs that enable callers to verbally request information rather than punching keys,” Popova said. “This is convenient for people who have no access to computers or who prefer to use a telephone.”

Speech App Cuts Printing, Personnel Costs
Such applications also provide a positive return on investment, according to Riny Ledgerwood, director of communication and computing services at San Diego State University, which installed System Development Company of New Hampshire, Inc.’s IntelliSPEECH® Auto Attendant three years ago.

“We wanted to increase our efficiency without increasing our staffing costs,” Ledgerwood said. “We wanted our operators to be able to do more things than just transfer calls.”

Before installing IntelliSPEECH®, operators had time to do little else than transfer calls, according to Ledgerwood. Now callers can simply ask for the faculty member, department or student they want for automatic connection rather than asking the operator to be connected.

The university opted for a speech-enabled system rather than a simple touchtone system to replace print directories because it’s much simpler and quicker for people to say a name rather than search for the letters of a person’s name on a telephone keypad. “This is much more natural,” Ledgerwood said.

In addition to replacing the print directories, the speech-enabled directory enables universities to employ fewer operators and to spend less time training the operators they do have. "Unlike the typical business which operates on an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or similar schedule, students want to reach other students, professors or university offices around the clock," said Craig Van Rossum, System Development Company's sales manager. "So these schools have needed to employ operators around the clock."

"San Diego State has cut the number of full-time operators by one, saving about $40,000 a year," Ledgerwood said. "Other universities have cut operator staff by as much as 60 percent," according to Van Rossum.

San Diego State also eliminated the printing of student and faculty directory, saving the school an estimated $20,000 per year, Ledgerwood added. "But," she added, the decision to eliminate the print directory was due to a combination of "the speech directory capabilities and online directories. Without both, the university may not have eliminated the directory."

Other universities print directories more than once a year, so they save even more, according to Van Rossum.

Another cost savings for colleges and universities using speech recognition, according to Van Rossum, is that they can limit their Yellow Page listings to a single phone number, rather than paying for lengthy listings with various phone numbers for various departments.

Additionally, Yellow Pages’ ads and university-printed listings can only be changed as often as the directories go to print, and may become outdated shortly thereafter. The speech-enabled auto attendant, on the other hand, enables authorized users to make changes on the fly.

"San Diego State had a limited Yellow Page listing to begin with and opted to stay with it," Ledgerwood said. "Even so, the savings from the staff reduction and elimination of the directory enabled San Diego State to pay for the IntelliSPEECH® application within two years," Ledgerwood said.

Joe Jarnutowski, System Development Company's president and CEO, expects colleges and universities to expand their use of the speech technology beyond directory services to include course assignments and charges, registrations, adding “cash” to meal cards and other similar services in the near future.

"While many of these expanded applications are handled via the Internet today, people don’t always have access to a computer, but most have access to a cell phone," Jarnutowski explained.

Popova agreed, saying that speech recognition offers an efficient way for students and faculty to access scheduling, grade and attendance information.

Evening the Odds
At the elementary level, speech-enabled applications are helping the disabled compete on a more level playing field with their able-bodied classmates, according to Bill Henderson, principal at Patrick O’Hearn Elementary School in Boston, Mass., where one-third of the school’s 230 students have disabilities. Boston-area parents can choose among 30 different elementary schools to send their children. Many choose O’Hearn Elementary due to its work with special needs children, said Henderson.

“Under the No Child Left Behind law, disabled students study the same curriculum as able-bodied students,” said Henderson, who is visually disabled himself. These students are also graded on the same basis as their more able-bodied counterparts.

“Students with dyslexia or another visual impairment spend so much time just decoding the text that it’s extremely difficult for them to learn the actual subject matter,” said Henderson. “They have to work so hard at decoding words that they don’t read as much.”

To address this problem, the school acquired the Kurzweil 3000 application from Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc., Bedford, Mass. The reading, writing and learning software is designed to aid individuals with learning difficulties like dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other literacy difficulties.

The speech-enabled application permits them to concentrate on learning actual subject matter rather than just struggling to get through the text, Henderson explained. The software reads online books that the school uses as well as questions and answers from tests. In addition to reading the material to students, the software enables them to type answers directly onto the image of a scanned exam.

The software speaks letters and words as the student types them, helping users recognize and filter out mistakes. Audible assistance from a spell checker and a word predictor also helps students accelerate their understanding. The software will also help if a student spells a word phonetically (i.e., forgetting the p on pneumonia), providing the student with the correct spelling. If the student is listening to material, he can control the speed and the tone that the application reads the material.

The software includes decoding tools like a recursive dictionary, synonyms and syllabification. Students can also improve comprehension and retention with tools that allow them to highlight main ideas, add annotations, and extract outlines and word lists as well as to create voice notes.

Teachers can personalize their instruction with the software, using it to highlight areas of text or certain vocabulary words that they want students to study. The combination of hearing, seeing and tracking words that the application reads increases comprehension and understanding, said Henderson.

According to Henderson, since installing the program at the beginning of the academic year, the reading-disabled students have performed far better.

“Since they’re not struggling with reading so slowly they [the reading-disabled students] are handling material with far greater fluency and comprehension,” said Henderson. 

In addition to performing better on tests, these students are now also excited to show parents/guardians their accomplishments. “Last year many of them were ashamed to show how they were doing in reading, writing and math,” Henderson said.
Unfortunately, the speech-enabled applications don’t help students with cognitive disabilities, Henderson said. Yet there’s been enough success with other students that Henderson is looking for ways to extend the software’s usage in more of the school’s curriculum.

Locating Students
Another area in which speech-enabled applications are aiding disabled students is in their transportation. Palm Beach County, Fla.’s board of education has installed Avaya IR 1.2 speech application platform, which Viecore customized to integrate with global positioning software, the Geospacial Transportation System.

“School district rules require that each of the special needs students be accompanied by a parent or guardian when the school bus arrives,” said Angie Godat, sales director for the southeast for Viecore, Inc. Upper Saddle River, N.J. “The parent or guardian also needs to be with the student when he’s picked up each day.”

Though the buses for these students have a designated schedule, there are inherent delays due to traffic conditions or because one of the students needs attention on the vehicle, Godat explained. Since the bus schedule depends on so many external factors, the county school board wanted a system that would automatically provide parents with real-time location information.

Using the Avaya/Viecore and Geospacial software, the school board’s telecommunication system automatically calls the parents/guardians with a recorded announcement stating that the bus is 20 minutes away from a student’s stop. The system accepts inbound calls as well. The parent/guardian identifies the student’s name and provides an identification number. The global positioning software locates the student’s bus, relays that information to the automated voice system, which informs the parent/guardian of the vehicle’s location.

The software combination is believed to be the first of its kind employed by an entire school district, said Godat. However, she expects more school districts to look for similar solutions, not only for special needs students, but also to help track and reduce truancy. “School district funding is partially dependent on truancy and attendance figures,” said Godat.

Faster Paper Production
In higher education, speech-enabled dictation programs can help students and professors alike in writing papers, said Matt Revis, senior product marketing manager, dictation products group, for ScanSoft, Peabody, Mass. Therefore, according to Revis, the company’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking® product continues to gain in popularity, particularly as it becomes more accurate and the systems that operate it continue to gain processing power; however, ScanSoft didn’t have any figures for number of sales in the education market.

Popova questions just how popular the program is in higher education, because the software doesn’t help with PowerPoint applications that are part of many presentations.

Popova does expect to see increasing growth of speech-to-text applications, audio books, and speech mining applications that she said are little used right now in education, as well as more use of the speech-enabled IVRs, applications for the visually impaired and automated speech applications.

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues