Market Spotlight: Education

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Speech technologies in the classroom have long been a trusted alternative for students with physical or learning disabilities to access computers and reading materials, but in recent years they have become a critical tool for all students, particularly in the areas of reading, writing, and spelling.

Though text-to-speech (TTS), in particular, got its educational start largely as an assistive technology for the blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, dysgraphic, or students with other disabilities, “We’ve seen the movement of TTS out of the assistive market to the mainstream in different waves,” says Patrick Dexter, director of business development at Cepstral. “Originally it was in a lab or special section of the classroom, but teachers wanted it on every computer in the classroom so [disabled] students could sit with the rest of the students and not have to leave class. Once that happened, schools started to see that other students could benefit from TTS as well.

“We now see TTS helping students to read better, even if they’re at or above grade level already,” Dexter continues. “It’s a literacy tool being used by a growing number of students as schools move to more computer-based learning.”

The same applies to computer-based test-taking. In the past, students with special needs could have teachers or teachers’ aides read testing materials to them. Through a special deal reached with Data Recognition Corp., the firm that administers standardized tests throughout the state of Pennsylvania, Cepstral TTS voices can now read the tests to students.

Companies like Cepstral and Nuance Communications have taken notice of the burgeoning educational market for TTS. In fact, Nuance in early August introduced with its launch of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Version 11 a series of new capabilities and licensing programs designed specifically for elementary and secondary schools. The new version includes a more intuitive user interface, a new accent model tuned for younger speakers, and special pricing for individual students and entire schools. The Dragon Premium Student/Teacher boxed edition for individuals is offered at $99. Nuance also offers several academic volume license program options, including a new School License program that provides Dragon for up to 250 students using school-owned or leased computers.

According to the company, Dragon offers an alternative for students of any ability to deliver more thorough written work since they can focus on their thoughts rather than worrying about transferring those thoughts to the written word.

“The big pain before was getting my thoughts on paper,” says Gregory Robinson, a 12-year-old student and Dragon NaturallySpeaking user, in a video on Nuance’s Web site. “Now with Dragon, I can just say it and have it down on a piece of paper.”

“Ultimately, we want to make Dragon a standard part of every student’s learning toolbox,” acknowledges Peter Mahoney, senior vice president and general manager of the Dragon product line at Nuance. 

But for TTS to reach that level of popularity, Cepstral and other technology vendors might want to consider making the software more child-friendly. “I really see TTS continuing to grow in schools as more and more students learn about the benefits,” Dexter says. “But I think as we start to move more into elementary schools, we’ll see the need for a variety of voices. Students are going to want character voices, entertaining voices, voices to keep them engaged in the material.”

Dexter and others in the industry also see a growing market among college students, particularly those who use a Mac. “There’s also a very high demand among nondisabled college students buying Mac computers. Mac has a much better integration of speech within its operating system,” Dexter says.

Dexter has also begun to see college students using TTS and speech recognition to make podcasts of classroom lectures and additional recommended reading materials and listen to them on the go. “It’s all about taking the material, running it through the TTS [engine], and listening to it where we hadn’t thought it was possible, like on the bus on their way to school,” he says.

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