SoapBox Labs Lands Deal with McGraw Hill for Voice-Enabled Learning

SoapBox Labs today announced a broad-based partnership with McGraw Hill, a company that counts 90% of U.S. school districts as customers. Sean Ryan, president of McGraw Hill School Group commented, “Viable voice recognition technology always made me intrigued by the possibilities. The technology has come so far in the last several years to the point that it is almost commonplace in consumer space. This is an opportunity to be more relevant to the modern student experience outside the classroom.”

Ryan added that John Adams said about the means of acquiring knowledge, “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write,” and suggested we are not using speech to its fullest potential in learning. “Voice is the next logical evolution phase for technology in the modern language arts classroom.”

First Up, Reading and Speech Competency

It is now well understood that most speech recognition systems are optimized for use with adults. This creates challenges for children using these systems because the child’s speech and intent is often misunderstood. The speech patterns differ. The shorter length of the vocal cords changes the sounds and pronunciation of many words. This may not be a big deal if the child is asking a common request such as setting a timer or turning on the lights. However, in an education setting, where word choice, use, and pronunciation really matter in understanding language mastery, it is critical.

SoapBox Labs has focused solely on building an automated speech recognition system (ASR) for use by children. It is an enabling technology for applications providers that need highly accurate speech-to-text conversion from children’s speech.

Ryan said the first application from McGraw Hill will be for grading what is sometimes called a Running Reading Record. Today, students read out loud to a specialist who annotates a script on paper, an iPad, or into a computer. One challenge with this process is that even with new annotation technologies “it doesn’t scale. It is still one-on-one. We now have the opportunity to scale that assessment. Teachers will be able to spend more time intervening than screening [and recording].”

McGraw Hill already provides these testing solutions for manual assessment to school districts in its Reading Mastery Transformations product which is a key component of its direct instruction portfolio. SoapBox Labs technology will first be incorporated into this module to automate the process by recording and analyzing the child’s speech and making annotations on mastery level. The teacher can add to the record as needed.

This new feature will be incorporated into the existing product and not require an additional purchase by the school districts. Ryan said it would be available for instruction use in the fall of 2022. He also mentioned in a video posted today that McGraw Hill has already piloted the technology with SoapBox Labs and received customer feedback.

A More Independent Assessment

In addition to scalability, the solution has the potential to remove bias from student assessments. “A teacher will be wildly inconsistent compared to an algorithm,” said Ryan. “It’s not prejudging a student, not thinking about the siblings of that student, the clothes they are wearing, or their success in other classrooms. There will be an increase in the fidelity of the assessments. [By having] a consistent longitudinal measure we will be able to design better interventions.”

Dr. Martyn Farrows, CEO of SoapBox Labs, emphasized this final point. “We shared a vision of how voice-enabled education tools can support teachers and provide a level playing field for kids of all ages, accents, and backgrounds…The longitudinal value will enable curriculum and product development of more focused applications.”

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