Market Spotlight: Education

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From iPads on every desk to state-of-the-art biology labs, schools are being transformed by technology. Education today probably looks much different than what you remember from your school days. And it might sound different as well, as speech technologies are making their way into schools across the globe, changing the way kids learn and how teachers do their jobs. 

A Long History of Speech Technology in Schools

Speech technology might be making waves in educational circles right now, but this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. “Early forms of speech recognition technology began to emerge in the 1950s and ’60s, progressing from only recognizing digits to understanding a handful of English words. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act changed the face of speech technology in education, as it required all universities receiving federal funds to make accommodations for students with disabilities,” says Eric Shellef, cofounder and chief technology officer of Verbit.ai, a large-scale transcription and captioning solution. “This effectively made captioning and transcriptioning of audiovisual content a necessity in all public universities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 expanded the minimum requirements that universities needed to meet, strengthening the demand for speech technology in learning institutions and cementing their status as fixtures of the learning environment.” 

Speech-to-text technology may have a long history in schools, but other forms of speech technology have not enjoyed such mainstream success. Ken Spiegel, CEO of LanguaMetrics, a company that develops and operates a cloud-based platform for measuring the accuracy of the spoken word, says, “We’ve been a part of speech in education for 15 years. It hasn’t really entered U.S. public schools until last year, with our new product. There have been fits and starts.” Until now, the accuracy of many speech technologies has not been up to snuff. 

The Changing Role of Speech Technology in Classrooms

For most of its history, Spiegel says, speech technology has been used for “the learning space as opposed to the assessment space.” For instance, transcription was used as an instructive tool for students with hearing difficulties. And, more recently, as Shellef notes, distance learning has become popular, as more universities are now offering complete degree programs online. “In this context, where the entirety of the learning process depends on audio­visual materials, speech technologies like transcription and caption tools are key elements of the learning process and essential for student success,” he says. 

But as speech analytics solutions have improved, the category is becoming a bigger part of the learning environment. “So much of learning is communications. So much of the school experience is silent. You get out into the real world and you have to speak. We use technology to assess understandability,” says Spiegel. In the past, a teacher would have to sit and listen to kids read and mark down the number of mistakes they made while reading a passage. Now, speech analytics can do that job, leaving the teacher free to take on more creative tasks.

Smart Speakers Make Teachers’ Jobs Easier

Smart speakers are becoming ubiquitous in the home, but perhaps less so in schools. “Those devices are fundamentally home devices. They’re designed to excel in the home…with few speakers, far from the microphone,” says Spiegel. In other words, they aren’t of much use in a noisy classroom. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place; despite their limitations, they’re becoming useful in some educational settings.

“We’ve developed LanguaBooks that kids can read with Alexa,” Spiegel says. These books are especially helpful for students learning English. According to LanguaMetrics’ website, LanguaBooks use “unique techniques to improve listening comprehension and pronunciation of English words based on topics that are taught in school.” Additionally, they “listen to audio from native professional narrators, with visualization of results and errors from reading the text. [They create] unique opportunities for learning English.” Teachers can also derive data about which students are reading which books, and how fluent they are when reading out loud.

But it’s not all about the students. Teachers can now ask a smart speaker “What are my vocabulary words for today?” or “Can you mail the newsletter?” The mundane tasks of teaching have been automated—just like in so many other industries. 

“These kinds of technologies have truly become universal in everyday life. Millions of people use digital assistants like Alexa or Siri to complete simple tasks, which sets an expectation for this same level of digitization and ease in all facets of life—including education,” says Shellef. “In that context, these devices have certainly revolutionized the role of speech technology in schools. They enable tremendous opportunities for educators and students alike by providing access to a wealth of information on any topic, simply by speaking a few words. The potential there is enormous, and we are only just on the precipice of leveraging its full capabilities.” 

The Future of Speech Technology in the Classroom

Companies like LanguaMetrics and Verbit are already bringing speech and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to bear in schools. As Shellef says, “Verbit provides a transcription and caption solution that blends AI technology with human intelligence to quickly produce highly accurate results. Our technology is tailored to the field of education, meaning the AI engine is trained to recognize terms that are commonly mentioned in lectures, anticipate them in future recordings, and therefore improve over time to reach an unparalleled level of accuracy.”

We know that AI is advancing rapidly, and one has to ask how that will continue to change the way we use it in every vertical. Take Avatarion, for instance. The Swiss company allows children who are physically absent from school—usually due to extended illness and hospital stays—to have a presence in class in the form of a robot-like avatar. The technology, Avatar Kid, connects to the Microsoft Azure IoT Hub and, thanks to video and audio connections, allows students to be a part of class even when they can’t be at their desks. 

Moreover, a 2017 study done by Katherine McKnight found that students using Microsoft’s Learning Tools “showed an average gain of 123.6 points in their STAR scores, compared to the historical group’s 89.2 points, and an average [rankings] gain of 10 percentile points, while the comparison group dropped by 0.62 points.” In other words, immersive reading experiences have the potential to level the playing field for students and help those who struggle without drastically increasing costs. And the possibilities are endless.

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