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Teaching with Speech

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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 Margaret Curley, a speech pathologist and manager of remote education and teleservices at TherapyTravelers, 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,” she says. “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.

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