SoapBox OpEd

3 Ways Voice AI Is Transforming Teaching and Learning

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dr. Martyn Farrows, CEO of child-specific voice recognition technology developer SoapBox Labs.

For over a decade, voice technology has been part of our daily lives through the pervasive use of smart assistants. More recently, accurate and equitable voice technology that recognizes children’s unique voices and speech patterns has been gaining currency with education companies looking to narrow the literacy gap for young students, improve the efficacy of their tools, and support an approach called the “science of reading” which has seen a resurgence of interest in recent months.

Voice-enabled learning has the potential to alleviate some of the deeply ingrained, systemic challenges being faced in pre-K-12 education. It has the potential to deliver better and more regular assessments, to offer kids more agency to practice and learn independently, and to drive more equity in educational experiences. Learning tools powered by speech recognition also empower teachers by giving them a more time-effective and scalable way to deliver personalized feedback and instruction to students.

As of June 2023, SoapBox has powered over 80 million learning experiences for children in classrooms across the US and globally. We and our education partners have learned a lot of lessons from these experiences. We’ve also observed three key ways in which voice technology is transforming teaching and learning in the classroom:

1. It’s helping teachers deliver personalized instruction.

Teachers instinctively know which kids are struggling. But being able to pinpoint exactly where they are struggling, or to screen early for learning challenges like dyslexia, can make all the difference in getting a child the personalized support they need early in their learning journeys. Voice-enabled learning tools generate actionable data, in real-time and over time, allowing teachers a deeper and clearer understanding of a young student’s strengths and struggles. With this data, teachers can group children with similar learning challenges and focus instruction to develop those skills.

Take, for example, a third-grade student struggling with reading fluency. Voice-enabled reading tools generate data when students read aloud, telling the teacher (or the student themselves) where they’re struggling or need additional support. Voice-enabled literacy tools consider factors like reading speed and prosody, as well as errors like insertions, deletions, and hesitations. These data points populate the teacher’s dashboard every time the child reads for practice or as part of an assessment, and allow for more personalized instruction and earlier interventions.

Case in point, SoapBox’s voice engine powers a dyslexia screening tool for EarlyBird Education, returning phoneme level data back to teachers of how well students are reading. Thanks to EarlyBird, “I can see where the kids are substituting words, what their deficiencies are,” teacher Sherine Raymond of Sto-Rox school in PA told EdSurge in March this year.

Small group instruction can serve as a powerful tool for struggling students but the students in small groups are rarely homogeneous in their struggles or the pace at which they acquire new skills. It can be challenging for teachers to recognize when an individual student has mastered a focused skill and is ready to return to the main classroom. Voice-enabled tools can help, ensuring kids move on from skills they’ve already mastered to focus on acquiring new ones.

Voice-enabled learning also means that a classroom runs much more efficiently. While the teacher leads small group instruction and works with one individual child, the rest of the class can practice reading aloud, with analysis and feedback on their individual reading populating the teacher dashboard.

2. It’s changing the way students take tests — and how teachers act upon the results.

One of the most significant developments to come from adopting voice-enabled classroom tools is making assessments more regular, objective, and actionable. For starters, voice technology allows educators to assess students invisibly. Not only is that less stressful for the students — who are unaware that they’re being tested — it also removes a time-intensive activity for teachers who otherwise need to sit and listen to each child’s reading to assess their proficiency. Because voice-enabled tools allow assessments to be delivered more informally, regularly and objectively they also allow teachers and school administrators to take a more holistic approach to instruction and to maximize the effectiveness of teachers’ time with students:

“When we got the data back [from the voice-enabled assessments], we were alarmed to see that students were not reading at the level they should be. They didn’t recognize letters they should be,” the PA-based teacher Sherine Raymond explained. Such insights at Sto-Rox prompted a shift in classroom management across the whole school district, allowing teachers more time and greater visibility into how their young students were learning.

3. It frees teachers to make instructional time more impactful

For educators who teach students to read, nothing beats one-on-one assessments of oral reading fluency. But that process is incredibly time-consuming: a teacher could spend nearly two hours just listening to 22 students read aloud for five minutes. And that doesn’t take into account time spent preparing, scoring, and analyzing all of that data. The result is that teachers spend less time on what drives their passion – instructing students and having the biggest impact possible on student outcomes.

In a five-month study last year by SoapBox client Imagine Learning, 15,000 students and 310 classroom educators across nine states compared their new voice-enabled tool Fluent Reader+ against the original, non-voice-enabled “Fluent Reader” tool. The results were impressive across the board – teachers reported using FluentReader+ twice as often in their classrooms as FluentReader while also spending, on average, 64% less time reviewing and analyzing students’ oral reading fluency artifacts.

Giving precious time back to teachers means they can turn their attention to the kids who most need additional assistance while encouraging others to move forward with more agency and confidence. These three voice-enabled transformations share a common theme: unlike other classroom technologies, voice-enabled tools empower teachers, keeping them at the center of the crucial, complex work of helping kids learn. For sure, teachers have access to an unprecedented number of tech tools today, but too few of them were thoughtfully designed to engage kids while keeping teachers where they want to be – at the center of the learning experience.

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